Monday, February 15, 2021

Prescribed Burning Legal Issues

Overview

The calendar indicates that the time for conducting open burns of agricultural land is approaching.  In the Great Plains (and also some areas of eastern Washington and Oregon), prescribed burning of pasture grass is a critical component of rangeland management.  It is an effective and affordable means of reversing and controlling the negative impacts of woody plant growth and its expansion that damages native grasslands.  It can also play a role in limiting wildfire risk.  But some landowners are reluctant to engage in prescribed (controlled) burns out of a concern for liability and casualty risks associated with escaped fire and smoke.  While some states in the Great Plains have “burn bans,” agricultural-related burns are typically not prohibited during such bans. 

The legal rules, regulations and liability risks associated with prescribed burning of agricultural lands – it’s the topic of today’s post.

Regulations – The Kansas Approach

The states that comprise the Great Plains have regulations governing the conduct of prescribed burns. The regulations among the states have commonalities, but there are distinctions from state-to-state.  In addition, in some states, open burning bans can be imposed in the interest of public safety but exempt agricultural-related burns.  For purposes of this article, I will look at the Kansas regulations. 

Kansas administrative regulations set forth the rules for conducting prescribed burns.  K.A.R. §28-19-645 et seq. In general, open burning is prohibited unless an exception applies.  K.A.R. §645. One of those exceptions is for open burning of agricultural lands that is done in accordance with the regulations.  K.A.R. §28-19-647(a)(3). Under that exception, open burning of vegetation such as grass, woody species, crop residue, and other dry plant growth for the purpose of crop, range, pasture, wildlife or watershed management is exempt from the general prohibition on open burning.  K.A.R. §28-19-648(a).  However, a prescribed burn of agricultural land must be conducted within certain guidelines.  For instance, before a burn is started the local fire control authority with jurisdiction in the area must be notified unless local government has specified that notification is not required.  K.A.R. §28-19-648(a)(1).  Also, the burn cannot create a traffic hazard.  If wind conditions might result in smoke blowing toward a public roadway, notice must be given to the highway patrol, county sheriff or local traffic officials before the burn is started. K.A.R. §28-19-648(a)(2).  Likewise, a burn cannot create a visibility safety hazard for airplanes that utilize a nearby airport. K.A.R. §28-19-648(a)(3).  If such a problem could potentially result, notice must be given to the airport officials before the burn begins.  Id.  In all situations, the burn must be supervised until the fire is extinguished. K.A.R. §28-19-648(a)(4).  Also, the Kansas burn regulations allow local jurisdictions to adopt more restrictive ordinance or resolutions governing prescribed burns of agricultural land.  K.A.R. §28-19-648(b). 

Kansas regulations also specify that the open burning of vegetation and wood waste, structures, or any other materials on any premises during the month of April is prohibited in the counties of  Butler, Chase, Chautauqua, Cowley, Elk, Geary, Greenwood, Johnson, Lyon, Marion, Morris, Pottawatomie, Riley, Sedgwick, Wabaunsee, and Wyandotte counties.  K.A.R. §28-19-645a(a). This is the Flint Hills region of Kansas – some of the most abundant pasture ground in the United States.  However, certain activities are allowed in these counties during April.  For instance, the prescribed burning of agricultural land for the purposes of range or pasture management is allowed, as is the burning of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land that is conducted in accordance with the requirements for a prescribed burn of agricultural land.  K.A.R. §28-19-645a(b)(1).  Open burning during April is also allowed in these counties if it is carried out on a residential premise containing five or less dwelling units and incidental to the normal habitation of the dwelling units, unless prohibited by any local authority with jurisdiction over the premises.  K.A.R. §28-19-645a(b)(2).    Also, open burning is allowed for cooking or ceremonial purposes, on public or private lands regularly used for recreational purposes. Id. 

Non-agricultural open burning activities must meet certain other requirements including a showing that the open burning is necessary, in the public interest and not otherwise prohibit by any local government or fire authority.  K.A.R. §28-19-647(b).   These types of open burning activities must also be conducted pursuant to an approved written request to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment that details how the burn will be conducted, the parameters of the activity, and the location of public roadways within 1,000 feet as well as occupied dwelling within that same distance. K.A.R. §§28-19-647(d)(2)(E-F).  The open burning of heavy oils, tires and tarpaper and other heavy smoke-producing material is not permitted.  K.A.R. §28-19-647(e)(2).  A burn is not to be started at night (two hours before sunset until one hour after sunrise) and material is not to be added to a fire after two hours before sunset.  A burn is not to be conducted during foggy conditions or when wind speed is less than five miles-per-hour or greater than 15 miles-per-hour. K.A.R. §§28-19-647(e)(3-5).   

Legal Liability Principles

As noted above, Kansas regulations require that an agricultural prescribed burn is to be supervised until the fire is extinguished. But sometimes a fire will get out of control even after it is believed to be extinguished and burn an adjacent property resulting in property damage.  How does the law sort out liability in such a situation? 

Negligence.  In general, as applied to agricultural burning activities, the law applies one of three possible principles.  One principle is that of negligence and the other is that of strict liability.  The negligence system is a fault system.  For a person to be deemed legally negligent, certain conditions must exist. These conditions can be thought of as links in a chain. Each condition must be present before a finding of negligence can be obtained.  The first condition is that of a legal duty giving rise to a standard of care.  How is duty measured?  To be liable for a negligent tort, the defendant's conduct must have fallen below that of a “reasonable and prudent person” under the circumstances.  A reasonable and prudent person is what a jury has in mind when they measure an individual's conduct in retrospect - after the fact, when the case is in court. The conduct of a particular tortfeasor (the one causing the tort) who is not held out as a professional is compared with the mythical standard of conduct of the reasonable and prudent person in terms of judgment, knowledge, perception, experience, skill, physical, mental and emotional characteristics as well as age and sanity. For those held out as having the knowledge, skill, experience or education of a professional, the standard of care reflects those factors. For example, the standard applicable to a professional veterinarian in diagnosing or treating animals is what a reasonable and prudent veterinarian would have done under the circumstances, not what a reasonable and prudent person would do.

If a legal duty exists, it is necessary to determine whether the defendant's conduct fell short of the conduct of a “reasonable and prudent person (or professional) under the circumstances.”  This is called a breach, and is the second element of a negligent tort case.

Once a legal duty and breach of that duty are shown to exist, a causal connection (the third element) must be established between the defendant's act and (the fourth element) the plaintiff's injuries (whether to person or property). In other words, the resulting harm to the plaintiff must have been a reasonably foreseeable result of the defendant's conduct at the time the conduct occurred. Reasonable foreseeability is the essence of causality (also known as proximate cause). For example, assume that a Kansas rancher has followed all of the rules to prepare for and conduct a prescribed pasture burn. After conducting the burn, the rancher banks the fire up and leaves it in what he thinks is a fairly safe condition before heading to the house for lunch.  Over lunch, the wind picks up and spreads the fire to an adjoining tract of real estate.  If the burning of the neighbor's property was not reasonably foreseeable, an action for negligence will likely not be successful.  However, if the wind was at a high velocity before lunch and all adjoining property was extremely dry, it probably was foreseeable that the fire would escape and burn a neighboring landowner's tract.

Note:  For a plaintiff to prevail in a negligence-type tort case, the plaintiff bears the burden of proof to all of the elements by a preponderance of the evidence (just over 50 percent). 

Intentional interference with real property.  Another legal principle that can apply in to open burning activities, is intentional interference with real property.  This principle is closely related to trespass.  Trespass is the unlawful or unauthorized entry upon another person's land that interferes with that person's exclusive possession or ownership of the land.   At its most basic level, an intentional trespass is the intrusion on to another person's land without the owner's consent.  However, many other types of physical invasions that cause injury to an owner's possessory rights abound in agriculture.  These types of trespass include dynamite blasting, flooding with water or residue from oil and gas drilling operations, erection of an encroaching fence, unauthorized grazing of cattle, raising of crops and cutting timber on another's land without authorization, and prescribed agricultural burning activities, among other things. 

In general, the privilege of an owner or possessor of land to utilize the land and exploit its potential natural resources is only a qualified privilege.  The owner or possessor must exercise reasonable care in conducting operations on the land so as to avoid injury to the possessory rights of neighboring landowners.  The owner or possessor must exercise reasonable care in conducting operations on the land so as to avoid injury to the possessory rights of neighboring landowners.  For example, if a prescribed burn of a pasture results in heavy smoke passing onto an adjoining property accompanied with a long-term residual smoke odor, the party conducting the burn could be held legally responsible for damages under the theory of intentional interference with real property even if the burn was conducted in accordance with applicable state regulations.  See, e.g., Ream v. Keen, 112 Ore. App. 197, 828 P.2d 1038 (1992), aff’d, 314 Ore. 370, 838 P.2d 1073 (Ore. 1992).

Strict liability.  Some activities are deemed to be so dangerous that a showing of negligence is not required to obtain a recovery.  Under a strict liability approach, the defendant is liable for injuries caused by the defendant's actions, even if the defendant was not negligent in any way or did not intend to injure the plaintiff. In general, those situations reserved for resolution under a strict liability approach involve those activities that are highly dangerous.  When these activities are engaged in, the defendant must be prepared to pay for all resulting consequences, regardless of the legal fault.

Kansas liability rule for prescribed burning.  A strict liability rule could apply to a prescribed burn of agricultural land if the activity were to be construed as an inherently (e.g., extremely) dangerous activity.    In Kansas, however, farmers and ranchers have a right to set controlled fires on their property for agricultural purposes and will not be liable for damages resulting if the fire is set and managed with ordinary care and prudence, depending on the conditions present.  See, e.g., Koger v. Ferrin, 23 Kan. App. 2d 47, 926 P.2d 680 (Kan. Ct. App. 1996).  In Kansas, at least at the present time, the courts have determined that there is no compelling argument for imposing strict liability on a property owner for damages resulting from a prescribed burn of agricultural land.  Id. 

Note:  The liability rule applied in Texas and Oklahoma is also negligence and not strict liability.  In these states, carefully following applicable prescribed burning regulations goes along way to defeating a lawsuit claiming that damages from a prescribed burn were the result of negligence. 

Certainly, for prescribed burns of agricultural land in Kansas, the regulations applicable to non-agricultural burns establish a good roadmap for establishing that a burn was conducted in a non-negligent manner.  Following those requirements could prove valuable in protecting against a damage liability claim if the fire gets out of control and damages adjacent property.

Conclusion

Prescribed burning of agricultural land in Kansas and elsewhere in the Great Plains is an excellent range management tool.  Practiced properly the ecological and economic benefits to the landowner can be substantial.  But a burn must be conducted within the framework of existing regulations with an eye toward the legal rule governing any potential liability. 

February 15, 2021 in Civil Liabilities, Real Property, Regulatory Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Recent Happenings in Ag Law and Ag Tax

Overview

The world of agricultural law and taxation is certainly pertinent in the daily lives of farmers and ranchers.  In recent days and weeks, the courts have addressed more issues that can make a difference for ag producers.  In today’s post, I examine a few of those.  Those discussed today involve individual and entity taxation as well as environmental and regulatory issues.

More recent developments in ag law and tax - it’s the topic of today’s post.

Flow-Through Entities Can Deduct State and Local Taxes

IRS Notice 2020-75, applicable to specified income tax payments made on or after November 9, 2020

In a Notice, the IRS has said that taxes that are imposed on and paid by a partnership (or an S corporation) on its income are allowed as a deduction by the partnership (or S corporation) in computing its non-separately stated taxable income or loss for the tax year of payment. They are not passed through to the partners or shareholders, where they would be subject to the $10,000 limitation on state and local tax deductions imposed by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act effective for tax years beginning after 2017.

The IRS did not set a timetable for the issuance of proposed regulations. The IRS issued the Notice in response to some states enacting laws to allow this type of treatment for partnerships and S corporations. Thus, for a flow-through entity to be able to do this for a partnership or S corporation, state law must provide for pass-through entity level taxation. The Notice won't apply unless state law allows this. Merely allowing a pass-through entity to make withholding tax payments on behalf of the owners will not qualify because those withholding tax payments are treated as payments made by the owners and not as payments in satisfaction of the pass -through entity's tax liability. In addition, entities taking advantage of the Notice will reduce allocable taxable income which will, in turn reduce allocable qualified business income for purposes of I.R.C. §199A and, therefore, the qualified business income deduction. 

IRA Distributions Included in Income and Subject to Early Withdrawal Penalty 

Ball v. Comr., T.C. Memo. 2020-152

During 2012 and 2013 the petitioner participated in a SEP-IRA. Chase Bank (Chase) was the custodian. In 2012, he took two distributions from the account totaling over $200,000.  He had the bank deposit the distributions into a Chase business checking account that he had opened in the name of The Ball Investment Account LLC (Ball LLC), of which he was the sole owner and only member. Importantly, Ball LLC was not a retirement account. The petitioner informed Chase that the distributions were early distributions that were not exempt from tax.  The petitioner made real estate loans with the distributed funds. The first loan was repaid in April 2013 with a check payable to "the Ball SEP Account."  The funds were deposited into the SEP-IRA account. He paid off the second loan in installments in 2012 and 2013.  The payments were made with checks made payable to "the Ball SEP Account.”  Chase, as custodian, had no knowledge of or control over the use that Ball LLC made of the distributions that were deposited in the Ball LLC business checking account.  Chase also didn’t hold or control any documents related to the loans Ball LLC made. Chase issued the petitioner a Form 1099-R for the 2012 tax year reporting that the petitioner had received taxable distributions from the SEP-IRA of $209,600. While the petitioner reported the distributions on his Form 1040, he did not include them in gross income and reported no tax and no tax liability.  The IRS issued a CP2000 Notice stating that the petitioner had failed to report the distributions from Chase Bank and that he therefore owed $67,031 in tax and a substantial-understatement penalty of $13,406. The petitioner did not respond to the Notice, and the IRS then sent him a notice of deficiency that determined the deficiency, additional tax, and penalty due. The Tax Court determined that the petitioner had unfettered control over the distributions, rejecting the petitioner’s “conduit agency arrangement” argument. The Tax Court determined that Ball LLC was not acting as an agent or conduit on behalf of Chase when Ball LLC received and made use of the distributions. The Tax Court noted that Chase had no knowledge of how the distributed funds were used after they were deposited in the Ball LLC account at the petitioner’s direction and that nothing in the record showed that petitioner, who controlled Ball LLC, did not have unfettered control over the distributions. The Tax Court determined that the facts of his case were analogous to those in Vandenbosch v. Comr., T.C. Memo. 2016-29 and, as a result, Ball LLC was not a conduit for Chase. As a result, the IRS position that the distributions should be included in the petitioner’s income was upheld. In addition, the petitioner had not yet reached age 59.5 which meant that he was liable for the 10 percent early distribution penalty. The Tax Court also upheld the accuracy-related penalty. 

New ESA Definition of “Habitat” 

85 Fed. Reg. 81411 (Dec. 16, 2020), effective, Jan. 15, 2021

In response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Weyerhaeuser Co. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, 139 S. Ct. 361 (2018), the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has modified the definition of “habitat” for listed species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The modification is the first change in the definition since the Endangered Species Act’s (ESA) enactment in 1973. Under Weyerhaeuser, the U.S. Supreme Court held that an area being designated as habitat is a prerequisite for a designation as “critical habitat.”  The regulation defines “habitat” as “the abiotic and biotic setting that currently or periodically contains the resources and conditions necessary to support one or more life processes of a species.” Thus, to be “habitat” an area must already contain the conditions necessary to support the species it is intended to be habitat for. Thus, only those areas which include the environmental conditions that can provide benefits to the species at issue (one seeking either a listed or endangered species) will be eligible for critical habitat designation. 

Federal Government Must Pay Farmers Millions For Army Corps of Engineers' Mismanagement of Missouri River. 

Ideker Farms, Inc. v. United States, No. 14-183L, 2020 U.S. Claims LEXIS 2548 (Fed. Cl. Dec. 14, 2020)

In 2014, 400 farmers along the Missouri River from Kansas to North Dakota sued the federal government claiming that the actions of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) led to and caused repeated flooding of their farmland along the Missouri River. The farmers alleged that flooding in 2007-2008, 2010-2011, and 2013-2014 constituted a taking requiring that “just compensation” be paid to them under the Fifth Amendment. The litigation was divided into two phases – liability and just compensation. The liability phase was decided in early 2018 when the court determined that some of the 44 landowners selected as bellwether plaintiffs had established the COE’s liability. In that decision, the court held that the COE, in its attempt to balance flood control and its responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act, had released water from reservoirs “during periods of high river flows with the knowledge that flooding was taking place or likely to soon occur.” The court, in that case, noted that the COE had made other changes after 2004 to reengineer the Missouri River and reestablish more natural environments to facilitate species recovery that caused riverbank destabilization which led to flooding. Ultimately, the court, in the earlier litigation, determined that 28 of the 44 landowners had proven the elements of a takings claim – causation, foreseeability and severity. The claims of the other 16 landowners were dismissed for failure to prove causation. The court also determined that flooding in 2011 could not be tied to the COE’s actions and dismissed the claims for that year.

The present case involved a determination of the plaintiffs’ losses and whether the federal government had a viable defense against the plaintiffs’ claims. The court found that the “increased frequency, severity, and duration of flooding post MRRP [Missouri River Recovery Program] changed the character of the representative tracts of land.” The court also stated that, “ [i]t cannot be the case that land that experiences a new and ongoing pattern of increased flooding does not undergo a change in character.” The court determined that three representative plaintiffs, farming operations in northwest Missouri, southwest Iowa and northeast Kansas, were collectively owed more than $7 million for the devaluation of their land due to the establishment of a “permanent flowage easement” that the COE created which constituted a compensable taking under the Fifth Amendment.

The impact of the court’s ruling means that hundreds of landowners affected by flooding in six states are likely entitled to just compensation for the loss of property value due to the new flood patterns that the COE created as part of its MRRP. 

Conclusion

As 2021 unwinds, more issues will occur, many of which will likely involve estate and business entity planning along with income tax planning.

January 24, 2021 in Business Planning, Environmental Law, Income Tax, Regulatory Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Ag Law and Taxation 2020 Bibliography

Overview

Today's post is a bibliography of my ag law and tax blog articles of 2020.  Many of you have requested that I provide something like this to make it easier to find the articles.  If possible, I will do the same for articles from prior years.  The library of content is piling up - I have written more than 500 detailed articles for the blog over the last four and one-half years.

Cataloging the 2020 ag law and tax blog articles - it's the topic of today's post.

BANKRUPTCY

Ag Law and Tax in the Courts – Bankruptcy Debt Discharge; Aerial Application of Chemicals; Start-Up Expenses and Lying as Protected Speech

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/01/ag-law-and-tax-in-the-courts-bankruptcy-debt-discharge-aerial-application-of-chemicals-start-up-expe.html

Unique, But Important Tax Issues – “Claim of Right;” Passive Loss Grouping; and Bankruptcy Taxation

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/01/unique-but-important-tax-issues-claim-of-right-passive-loss-grouping-and-bankruptcy-taxation.html

Disaster/Emergency Legislation – Summary of Provisions Related to Loan Relief; Small Business and Bankruptcy

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/04/disasteremergency-legislation-summary-of-provisions-related-to-loan-relief-small-business-and-bankruptcy.html

Retirement-Related Provisions of the CARES Act

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/04/retirement-related-provisions-of-the-cares-act.html

Farm Bankruptcy – “Stripping, “Claw-Black,” and the Tax Collecting Authorities

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/05/farm-bankruptcy-stripping-claw-back-and-the-tax-collecting-authorities.html

SBA Says Farmers in Chapter 12 Ineligible for PPP Loans

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/06/sba-says-farmers-in-chapter-12-ineligible-for-ppp-loans.html

The “Cramdown” Interest Rate in Chapter 12 Bankruptcy

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/07/the-cramdown-interest-rate-in-chapter-12-bankruptcy.html

Bankruptcy and the Preferential Payment Rule

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/12/bankruptcy-and-the-preferential-payment-rule.html

BUSINESS PLANNING

Partnership Tax Ponderings – Flow-Through and Basis

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/02/partnership-tax-ponderings-flow-through-and-basis.html

Farm and Ranch Estate and Business Planning in 2020 (Through 2025)

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/03/farm-and-ranch-estate-and-business-planning-in-2020-through-2025.html

Transitioning the Farm or Ranch – Stock Redemption

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/07/transitioning-the-farm-or-ranch-stock-redemption.html

Estate and Business Planning for the Farm and Ranch Family – Use of the LLC (Part 1)

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/07/estate-and-business-planning-for-the-farm-and-ranch-family-use-of-the-llc-part-1.html

Estate and Business Planning for the Farm and Ranch Family – Use of the LLC (Part 2)

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/07/estate-and-business-planning-for-the-farm-and-ranch-family-use-of-the-llc-part-two.html

The Use of the LLC for the Farm or Ranch Business – Practical Application

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/08/the-use-of-the-llc-for-the-farm-or-ranch-business-practical-application.html

CIVIL LIABILITIES

Top Ten Agricultural Law and Tax Developments from 2019 (Numbers 10 and 9)

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/01/top-ten-agricultural-law-and-tax-developments-from-2019-numbers-10-and-9.html

Ag Law in the Courts – Feedlots; Dicamba Drift; and Inadvertent Disinheritance

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/01/ag-law-in-the-courts-feedlots-dicamba-drift-and-inadvertent-disinheritance.html

Ag Law and Tax in the Courts – Bankruptcy Debt Discharge; Aerial Application of Chemicals; Start-Up Expenses and Lying as Protected Speech

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/01/ag-law-and-tax-in-the-courts-bankruptcy-debt-discharge-aerial-application-of-chemicals-start-up-expe.html

Dicamba, Peaches and a Defective Ferrari; What’s the Connection?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/05/dicamba-peaches-and-a-defective-ferrari-whats-the-connection.html

Liability for Injuries Associated with Horses (and Other Farm Animals)

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/06/liability-for-injuries-associated-with-horses-and-other-farm-animals.html

Issues with Noxious (and Other) Weeds and Seeds

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/09/issues-with-noxious-and-other-weeds-and-seeds.html

Of Nuisance, Overtime and Firearms – Potpourri of Ag Law Developments

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/11/of-nuisance-overtime-and-firearms-potpourri-of-ag-law-developments.html

CONTRACTS

The Statute of Frauds and Sales of Goods

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/01/the-statute-of-frauds-and-sales-of-goods.html

Disrupted Economic Activity and Force Majeure – Avoiding Contractual Obligations in Time of Pandemic

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/04/disrupted-economic-activity-and-force-majeure-avoiding-contractual-obligations-in-time-of-pandemic.html

Is it a Farm Lease or Not? – And Why it Might Matter

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/11/is-it-a-farm-lease-or-not-and-why-it-might-matter.html

COOPERATIVES

Top Ten Agricultural Law and Tax Developments of 2019 (Numbers 2 and 1)

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/01/top-ten-agricultural-law-and-tax-developments-of-2019-numbers-2-and-1.html

Concentrated Ag Markets – Possible Producer Response?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/05/concentrated-ag-markets-possible-producer-response.html

CRIMINAL LIABILITIES

Is an Abandoned Farmhouse a “Dwelling”?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/02/is-an-abandoned-farmhouse-a-dwelling.html

ENVIRONMENTAL LAW

Top Ten Agricultural Law and Tax Developments of 2019 (Numbers 8 and 7)

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/01/top-ten-agricultural-law-and-tax-developments-of-2019-numbers-8-and-7.html

Top Ten Agricultural Law and Tax Developments of 2019 (Numbers 6 and 5)

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/01/top-ten-agricultural-law-and-tax-developments-of-2019-numbers-six-and-five.html

Top Ten Agricultural Law and Tax Developments of 2019 (Numbers 4 and 3)

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/01/top-ten-agricultural-law-and-tax-developments-of-2019-numbers-4-and-3.html

Clean Water Act – Compliance Orders and “Normal Farming Activities”

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/03/clean-water-act-compliance-orders-and-normal-farming-activities.html

Groundwater Discharges of “Pollutants” and “Functional Equivalency”

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/04/groundwater-discharges-of-pollutants-and-functional-equivalency.html

NRCS Highly Erodible Land and Wetlands Conservation Final Rule – Clearer Guidance for Farmers or Erosion of Property Rights? – Part One

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/09/nrcs-highly-erodible-land-and-wetlands-conservation-final-rule-clearer-guidance-for-farmers-or-erosi.html

NRCS Highly Erodible Land and Wetlands Conservation Final Rule – Clearer Guidance for Farmers or Erosion of Property Rights? – Part Two

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/09/nrcs-highly-erodible-land-and-wetlands-conservation-final-rule-clearer-guidance-for-farmers-or-loss-of-property-rights.html

NRCS Highly Erodible Land and Wetlands Conservation Final Rule – Clearer Guidance for Farmers or Erosion of Property Rights? – Part Three

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/09/nrcs-highly-erodible-land-and-wetlands-conservation-final-rule-clearer-guidance-for-farmers-or-loss-of-property-rights-1.html

The Prior Converted Cropland Exception – More Troubles Ahead?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/09/the-prior-converted-cropland-exception-more-troubles-ahead.html

TMDL Requirements – The EPA’s Federalization of Agriculture

            https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/10/tmdl-requirements-.html

Eminent Domain and “Seriously Misleading” Financing Statements

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/10/eminent-domain-and-seriously-misleading-financing-statements.html

 

ESTATE PLANNING

Ag Law in the Courts – Feedlots; Dicamba Drift; and Inadvertent Disinheritance

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/01/ag-law-in-the-courts-feedlots-dicamba-drift-and-inadvertent-disinheritance.html

Recent Developments Involving Estates and Trusts

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/02/recent-developments-involving-decedents-estates-and-trusts.html

What is a “Trade or Business” For Purposes of Installment Payment of Federal Estate Tax?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/03/what-is-a-trade-or-business-for-purposes-of-installment-payment-of-federal-estate-tax.html

Alternate Valuation – Useful Estate Tax Valuation Provision

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/03/alternate-valuation-useful-estate-tax-valuation-provision.html

Farm and Ranch Estate and Business Planning in 2020 (Through 2025)

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/03/farm-and-ranch-estate-and-business-planning-in-2020-through-2025.html

Retirement-Related Provisions of the CARES Act

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/04/retirement-related-provisions-of-the-cares-act.html

Are Advances to Children Loans or Gifts?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/06/are-advances-to-children-loans-or-gifts.html

Tax Issues Associated with Options in Wills and Trusts

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/06/tax-issues-associated-with-options-in-wills-and-trusts.html

Valuing Farm Chattels and Marketing Rights of Farmers

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/06/valuing-farm-chattels-and-marketing-rights-of-farmers.html

Is it a Gift or Not a Gift? That is the Question

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/06/is-it-a-gift-or-not-a-gift-that-is-the-question.html

Does a Discretionary Trust Remove Fiduciary Duties a Trustee Owes Beneficiaries?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/10/does-a-discretionary-trust-remove-fiduciary-duties-a-trustee-owes-beneficiaries.html

Can I Write my Own Will? Should I?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/10/can-i-write-my-own-will-should-i.html

Income Taxation of Trusts – New Regulations

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/10/income-taxation-of-trusts.html

Merging a Revocable Trust at Death with an Estate – Tax Consequences

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/11/merging-a-revocable-trust-at-death-with-an-estate-tax-consequences.html

When is Transferred Property Pulled Back into the Estate at Death?  Be on Your Bongard!

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/11/when-is-transferred-property-pulled-back-into-the-estate-at-death-be-on-your-bongard.html

‘Tis the Season for Giving, But When is a Transfer a Gift?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/12/tis-the-season-for-giving-but-when-is-a-transfer-a-gift.html

 

INCOME TAX

Top Ten Agricultural Law and Tax Developments of 2019 (Numbers 2 and 1)

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/01/top-ten-agricultural-law-and-tax-developments-of-2019-numbers-2-and-1.html

Does the Penalty Relief for a “Small Partnership” Still Apply?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/01/does-the-penalty-relief-for-a-small-partnership-still-apply.html

Substantiation – The Key to Tax Deductions

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/01/substantiation-the-key-to-tax-deductions.html

Ag Law and Tax in the Courts – Bankruptcy Debt Discharge; Aerial Application of Chemicals; Start-Up Expenses and Lying as Protected Speech

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/01/ag-law-and-tax-in-the-courts-bankruptcy-debt-discharge-aerial-application-of-chemicals-start-up-expe.html

Unique, But Important Tax Issues – “Claim of Right;” Passive Loss Grouping; and Bankruptcy Taxation

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/01/unique-but-important-tax-issues-claim-of-right-passive-loss-grouping-and-bankruptcy-taxation.html

Conservation Easements and the Perpetuity Requirement

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/02/conservation-easements-and-the-perpetuity-requirement.html

Tax Treatment Upon Death of Livestock

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/02/tax-treatment-upon-death-of-livestock.html

What is a “Trade or Business” For Purposes of I.R.C. §199A?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/02/what-is-a-trade-or-business-for-purposes-of-irc-199a.html

Tax Treatment of Meals and Entertainment

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/03/tax-treatment-of-meals-and-entertainment.html

Farm NOLs Post-2017

            https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/03/farm-nols-post-2017.html

Disaster/Emergency Legislation – Summary of Provisions Related to Loan Relief; Small Business and Bankruptcy

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/04/disasteremergency-legislation-summary-of-provisions-related-to-loan-relief-small-business-and-bankruptcy.html

Retirement-Related Provisions of the CARES Act

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/04/retirement-related-provisions-of-the-cares-act.html

Income Tax-Related Provisions of Emergency Relief Legislation

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/04/income-tax-related-provisions-of-emergency-relief-legislation.html

The Paycheck Protection Program – Still in Need of Clarity

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/05/the-paycheck-protection-program-still-in-need-of-clarity.html

Solar “Farms” and The Associated Tax Credit

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/05/solar-farms-and-the-associated-tax-credit.html

Obtaining Deferral for Non-Deferred Aspects of an I.R.C. §1031 Exchange

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/05/obtaining-deferral-for-non-deferred-aspects-of-an-irc-1031-exchange-.html

Conservation Easements – The Perpetuity Requirement and Extinguishment

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/05/conservation-easements-the-perpetuity-requirement-and-extinguishment.html

PPP and PATC Developments

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/06/ppp-and-patc-developments.html

How Many Audit “Bites” of the Same Apple Does IRS Get?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/07/how-many-audit-bites-of-the-same-apple-does-irs-get.html

More Developments Concerning Conservation Easements

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/07/more-developments-concerning-conservation-easements.html

Imputation – When Can an Agent’s Activity Count?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/07/imputation-when-can-an-agents-activity-count.html

Exotic Game Activities and the Tax Code

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/08/exotic-game-activities-and-the-tax-code.html

Demolishing Farm Buildings and Structures – Any Tax Benefit?

         https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/08/demolishing-farm-buildings-and-structures-any-tax-benefit.html

Tax Incentives for Exported Ag Products

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/08/tax-incentives-for-exported-ag-products.html

Deducting Business Interest

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/09/deducting-business-interest.html

Recent Tax Court Opinions Make Key Point on S Corporations and Meals/Entertainment Deductions

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/09/recent-tax-court-opinions-make-key-points-on-s-corporations-and-mealsentertainment-deductions.html

Income Taxation of Trusts – New Regulations

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/10/income-taxation-of-trusts.html

Accrual Accounting – When Can a Deduction Be Claimed?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/11/accrual-accounting-when-can-a-deduction-be-claimed.html

Farmland Lease Income – Proper Tax Reporting

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/11/farmland-lease-income-proper-tax-reporting.html

Merging a Revocable Trust at Death with an Estate – Tax Consequences

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/11/merging-a-revocable-trust-at-death-with-an-estate-tax-consequences.html

The Use of Deferred Payment Contracts – Specifics Matter

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/11/the-use-of-deferred-payment-contracts-specific-matters.html

Is Real Estate Held in Trust Eligible for I.R.C. §1031 Exchange Treatment?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/11/is-real-estate-held-in-trust-eligible-for-irc-1031-exchange-treatment.html

 

INSURANCE

Recent Court Developments of Interest

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/07/recent-court-developments-of-interest.html

PUBLICATIONS

Principles of Agricultural Law

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/01/principles-of-agricultural-law.html

 

REAL PROPERTY

Signing and Delivery

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/02/deed-effectiveness-signing-and-delivery.html

Abandoned Railways and Issues for Adjacent Landowners

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/04/abandoned-railways-and-issues-for-adjacent-landowners.html

Obtaining Deferral for Non-Deferred Aspects of an I.R.C. §1031 Exchange

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/05/obtaining-deferral-for-non-deferred-aspects-of-an-irc-1031-exchange-.html

Are Dinosaur Fossils Minerals?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/06/are-dinosaur-fossils-minerals.html

Real Estate Concepts Involved in Recent Cases

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/10/real-estate-concepts-involved-in-recent-cases.html

Is it a Farm Lease or Not? – And Why it Might Matter

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/11/is-it-a-farm-lease-or-not-and-why-it-might-matter.html

 

REGULATORY LAW

Top Ten Agricultural Law and Tax Developments from 2019 (Numbers 10 and 9)

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/01/top-ten-agricultural-law-and-tax-developments-from-2019-numbers-10-and-9.html

Top Ten Agricultural Law and Tax Developments from 2019 (Number 8 and 7)

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/01/top-ten-agricultural-law-and-tax-developments-of-2019-numbers-8-and-7.html

Ag Law and Tax in the Courts – Bankruptcy Debt Discharge; Aerial Application of Chemicals; Start-Up Expenses and Lying as Protected Speech

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/01/ag-law-and-tax-in-the-courts-bankruptcy-debt-discharge-aerial-application-of-chemicals-start-up-expe.html

Hemp Production – Regulation and Economics

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/04/hemp-production-regulation-and-economics.html

DOJ to Investigate Meatpackers – What’s it All About?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/05/doj-to-investigate-meatpackers-whats-it-all-about.html

Dicamba Registrations Cancelled – Or Are They?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/06/dicamba-registrations-cancelled-or-are-they.html

What Does a County Commissioner (Supervisor) Need to Know?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/06/what-does-a-county-commissioner-supervisor-need-to-know.html

The Supreme Court’s DACA Opinion and the Impact on Agriculture

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/07/the-supreme-courts-daca-opinion-and-the-impact-on-agriculture.html

Right-to-Farm Law Headed to the SCOTUS?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/08/right-to-farm-law-headed-to-the-scotus.html

The Public Trust Doctrine – A Camel’s Nose Under Agriculture’s Tent?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/10/the-public-trust-doctrine-a-camels-nose-under-agricultures-tent.html

Roadkill – It’s What’s for Dinner (Reprise)

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/10/roadkill-its-whats-for-dinner-reprise.html

Beef May be for Dinner, but Where’s It From?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/11/beef-may-be-for-dinner-but-wheres-it-from.html

Of Nuisance, Overtime and Firearms – Potpourri of Ag Law Developments

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/11/of-nuisance-overtime-and-firearms-potpourri-of-ag-law-developments.html

What Farm Records and Information Are Protected from a FOIA Request?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/12/what-farm-records-and-information-are-protected-from-a-foia-request.html

Can One State Dictate Agricultural Practices in Other States?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/12/can-one-state-dictate-agricultural-practices-in-other-states.html

SECURED TRANSACTIONS

Family Farming Arrangements and Liens; And, What’s a Name Worth?

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/02/family-farming-arrangements-and-liens-and-whats-a-name-worth.html

Conflicting Interests in Stored Grain

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/03/conflicting-interests-in-stored-grain.html

Eminent Domain and “Seriously Misleading” Financing Statement

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/10/eminent-domain-and-seriously-misleading-financing-statements.html

 

SEMINARS AND CONFERENCES

Summer 2020 Farm Income Tax/Estate and Business Planning Conference

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/02/summer-2020-farm-income-taxestate-and-business-planning-conference.html

Registration Open for Summer Ag Income Tax/Estate and Business Planning Seminar

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/03/registration-open-for-summer-ag-income-taxestate-and-business-planning-seminar.html

 

Summer 2020 – National Farm Income Tax/Estate and Business Planning Conference

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/04/summer-2020-national-farm-income-taxestate-and-business-planning-conference.html

Year-End CPE/CLE – Six More to Go

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/12/year-end-cpecle-six-more-to-go.html

2021 Summer National Farm and Ranch Income Tax/Estate and Business Planning Conference

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/12/2021-summer-national-farm-income-taxestate-business-planning-conference.html

WATER LAW

Principles of Agricultural Law

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/01/principles-of-agricultural-law.html

MISCELLANEOUS

More “Happenings” in Ag Law and Tax

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/02/more-happenings-in-ag-law-and-tax.html

Recent Cases of Interest

            https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/03/recent-cases-of-interest.html

More Selected Caselaw Developments of Relevance to Ag Producers

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/03/more-selected-caselaw-developments-of-relevance-to-ag-producers.html

Court Developments of Interest

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/04/court-developments-of-interest.html

Ag Law and Tax Developments

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/05/ag-law-and-tax-developments.html

Recent Court Developments of Interest

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/07/recent-court-developments-of-interest.html

Court Developments in Agricultural Law and Taxation

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/08/court-developments-in-agricultural-law-and-taxation.html

Ag Law and Tax in the Courtroom

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/09/ag-law-and-tax-in-the-courtroom.html

Recent Tax Cases of Interest

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/09/recent-tax-cases-of-interest.html

Ag and Tax in the Courts

 https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/11/ag-and-tax-in-the-courts.html

Of Nuisance, Overtime and Firearms – Potpourri of Ag Law Developments

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/11/of-nuisance-overtime-and-firearms-potpourri-of-ag-law-developments.html

Bankruptcy Happenings

            https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/12/bankruptcy-happenings.html

January 20, 2021 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)

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Agricultural Law Online!

Overview

For the Spring 2021 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 this spring semester’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 and how to register is available here:  https://www.enrole.com/ksu/jsp/session.jsp?sessionId=442107&courseId=AGLAW&categoryId=ROOT

You can also find information about the text for the course at the following link:  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 class beginning on January 26!

January 17, 2021 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 13, 2021

The “Top Ten” Agricultural Law and Tax Developments of 2020 – Part Four

Overview

The biggest three developments of 2020 in ag law and tax are up for discussion today.  2020 was a year of many important developments of relevance to the agricultural industry, but the top three stand out in particular. 

The three most important developments of 2020 – it’s the topic of today’s post.

No. 3 – SCOTUS DACA Opinion

Background.  In mid-2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Department of Homeland Security, et al. v. Regents of the University of California, et al., 140 S. Ct. 1891 (2020) where the Court denied the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) revocation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).  The Court’s decision is of prime importance to agriculture because the case involved the ability of a federal government agency to create rules that are applied with the force of law without following the notice and comment requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act.  Agricultural activities are often subjected to the rules developed by federal government agencies, making it critical that agency rules are subjected to public input before being finalized.

The DHS started the DACA program by issuing an internal agency memorandum in 2012.  The DHS took this action after numerous bills in the Congress addressing the issue failed to pass over a number of years.  The DACA program illegal aliens that were minors at the time they illegally entered the United States to apply for a renewable, two-year reprieve from deportation.  The DACA program also gave these illegal immigrants work authorizations and access to taxpayer-funded benefits such as Social Security and Medicare.  Current estimates are that between one million and two million DACA-protected illegal immigrants are eligible for benefits  In 2014, the DHS attempted to expand DACA to provide amnesty and taxpayer benefits for over four million illegal aliens, but the expansion was foreclosed by a federal courts in 2015 for providing benefits to illegal aliens without following the procedural requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act as a substantive rule and for violating the Immigration and Naturalization Act.  Texas v. United States, 809 F.3d 134 (5th Cir. 2015), aff’g., 86 F. Supp. 3d 591 (S.D. Tex. 2015)In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the lower court decisions.  United States v. Texas, 136 S. Ct. 2271 (2016).  Based on these court holdings and because DACA was structured similarly, the U.S. Attorney General issued an opinion that the DACA was also legally defective.  Accordingly, in June of 2017, the DHS announced via an internal agency memorandum that it would end the illegal program by no longer accepting new applications or approving renewals other than for those whose benefits would expire in the next six months.  Activist groups sued and the Supreme Court ultimately determined that the action of the DHS was improper for failing to provide sufficient policy reasons for ending DACA.  In other words, what was created with the stroke of a pen couldn’t be eliminated with a stroke of a pen. 

Administrative Procedure Act (APA).  The APA was enacted in 1946.  Pub. L. No. 79-404, 60 Stat. 237 (Jun. 11, 1946).  The APA sets forth the rules governing how federal administrative agencies are to go about developing regulations.  It also gives the federal courts oversight authority over all agency actions.  The APA has been referred to as the “Constitution” for administrative law in the United States.  A key aspect of the APA is that any substantive agency rule that will be applied against an individual or business with the force of law (e.g., affecting rights of the regulated) must be submitted for public notice and comment.  5 U.S.C. §553.  The lack of DACA being subjected to public notice and comment when it was created and the Court’s requirement that it couldn’t be removed in like fashion struck a chord with the most senior member of the Court.  Justice Thomas authored a biting dissent that directly addressed this issue.  He wrote, “Without grounding its position in either the APA or precedent, the majority declares that DHS was required to overlook DACA’s obvious legal deficiencies and provide additional policy reasons and justifications before restoring the rule of law. This holding is incorrect, and it will hamstring all future agency attempts to undo actions that exceed statutory authority.”

Farmers and ranchers often deal with the rules developed by federal (and state) administrative agencies.  Those agency rules often involve substantive rights and, as such, are subject to the notice and comment requirements of the APA.  Failure to follow the APA often results in the restriction (or outright elimination) of property rights without the necessary procedural protections the APA affords. It’s also important that when administrative agencies overstep their bounds, a change in agency leadership has the ability to swiftly rescind prior illegal actions – a point Justice Thomas made clear in his dissent.

No. 2 - Public Trust Doctrine

Background.  Centuries ago, the seas were viewed as the common property of everyone - they weren’t subject to private use and ownership.  Instead, they were held in what was known as the “public trust.”  This concept was later adopted in English law, the Magna Carta, and became part of the common (non-statutory) law of individual states in the United States after the Revolution.  Over the years, this “public trust doctrine” has been primarily applied to access to the seashore and intertidal waters, although recently some courts have expanded its reach beyond its historical application.

But, any judicial expansion of the public trust doctrine results in curtailing vested property rights.  That’s a very important concern for agriculture because of agriculture’s necessary use of natural resources such as land, air, water, minerals and the like.  Restricting or eliminating property rights materially impacts agricultural operations in a negative manner.  It also creates an economic disincentive to use property in an economically (and socially) efficient manner.

How could an expanded public trust doctrine apply?  For farmers and ranchers, it could make a material detrimental impact on the farming operation.  For instance, many endangered species have habitat on privately owned land.  If wildlife and their habitat are deemed to be covered by the doctrine, farming and ranching practices could be effectively curtailed.  What about vested water rights?  A farming or ranching operation that has a vested water right to use water from a watercourse for crop irrigation or livestock watering purposes could find itself having those rights limited or eliminated if, under the public trust doctrine, a certain amount of water needed to be retained in the stream for a species of fish. 

One might argue that the government already has the ability to place those restrictions on farming operations, and that argument would be correct.  But, such restrictions exist via the legislative and regulatory process and are subject to constitutional due process, equal protection and just compensation protections.  Conversely, land-use restrictions via the public trust doctrine bypass those constitutional protections.  No compensation would need to be paid, because there was no governmental taking – a water right, for example, could be deemed to be subject to the “public trust” and enforced without the government paying for taking the right.  

Nevada Case.  Mineral County v. Lyon County, No. 75917, 2020 Nev. LEXIS 56 (Nev. Sup. Ct. Sept. 17, 2020)involved the state of Nevada’s water law system for allocating water rights and an attempt to take those rights without compensation via an expansion of the public use doctrine.  The state of Nevada appropriates water to users via the prior appropriation system – a “first-in-time, first-in-right” system.  Over 100 years ago, litigation over the Walker River Basin began between competing water users in the Walker River Basin.  The Basin covers approximately 4,000 square miles, beginning in the Sierra Nevada mountain range and ending in a lake in Nevada.  In 1936, a federal court issued a decree adjudicating water rights of various claimants to water in the basin via the prior appropriation doctrine. 

In 1987, an Indian Tribe intervened in the ongoing litigation to establish procedures to change the allocations of water rights subject to the decree.  Since that time, the state reviews all changes to applications under the decree.  In 1994, the plaintiff sought to modify the decree to ensure minimum stream flows into the lake under the “doctrine of maintenance of the public trust.”  The federal district (trial) court granted the plaintiff’s motion to intervene in 2013.  In 2015, the trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s amended complaint in intervention on the basis that the plaintiff lacked standing; that the public trust doctrine could only apply prospectively to bar granting appropriative rights; any retroactive application of the doctrine could constitute a taking requiring compensation; that the court lacked the authority to effectuate a taking; and that the lake was not part of the basin. 

On appeal, the federal appellate court determined that the plaintiff had standing, and that the lake was part of the basin.  The appellate court also held that whether the plaintiff could seek minimum flows depended on whether the public trust doctrine allowed the reallocation of rights that had been previously settled under the prior appropriation doctrine.  Thus, the appellate court certified two questions to the Nevada Supreme Court:  1) whether the public trust doctrine allowed such reallocation of rights; and 2) if so, whether doing so amounted to a “taking” of private property requiring “just compensation” under the Constitution. 

The state Supreme Court held that that public trust doctrine had already been implemented via the state’s prior appropriation system for allocating water rights and that the state’s statutory water laws is consistent with the public trust doctrine by requiring the state to consider the public interest when making allocating and administering water rights.  The state Supreme Court also determined that the legislature had expressly prohibited the reallocation of water rights that have not otherwise been abandoned or forfeited in accordance with state water law. 

The state Supreme Court limited the scope of its ruling to private water use of surface streams, lakes and groundwater such as uses for crops and livestock. The plaintiff has indicated that it will ask the federal appellate court for a determination of whether the public trust doctrine could be used to mandate water management methods.  If the court would rule that it does, the result would be an unfortunate disincentive to use water resources in an economically efficient manner (an application of the “tragedy of the commons”).  It would also provide a current example (in a negative way) of the application of the Coase Theorem (well-defined property rights overcome the problem of externalities).  See Coase, “The Problem of Social Cost,” Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 3, October 1960. 

Oregon CaseIn Chernaik v. Brown, 367 Or. 143 (2020), the plaintiffs claimed that the public trust doctrine required the State of Oregon to protect various natural resources in the state from harm due to greenhouse gas emissions, “climate change,” and ocean acidification. The public trust doctrine has historically only applied to submerged and submersible lands underlying navigable waters as well as the navigable waters. The trial court rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments. On appeal the state Supreme Court affirmed, rejecting the test for expanding the doctrine the plaintiffs proposed. Under that test, the doctrine would extend to any resource that is not easily held or improved and is of great value to the public. The state Supreme Court held that the plaintiffs’ test was too broad to be adopted and remanded the case to the lower court. 

No. 1 – CARES Act, CFAP Programs and Disaster Legislations and CAA, 2021

Quite clearly, the biggest development of 2020 involved the numerous tax and loan provisions enacted in an attempt to offset the loss of income and closure of business resulting from the actions of various state governors as a result of the virus.  Also, the various pieces of legislation made some of the most significant changes to the retirement planning rules in about 15 years.  In addition, tax provisions were contained in disaster legislation that took effect in 2020.  In late December of 2020, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 (CAA, 2021) was signed into law.  This law made significant changes to the existing Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and provided another round of payments to farmers and ranchers under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP).  The CAA, 2021 also extended numerous tax provisions that were set to expire at the end of 2020.

Conclusion

2020 was another big year in the ag law and tax world.  There’s never a dull moment. 

January 13, 2021 in Environmental Law, Income Tax, Regulatory Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 9, 2021

The “Top Ten” Agricultural Law and Tax Developments of 2020 – Part Two

Overview

There were many major legal and tax developments during 2020 that impacted agriculture and will continue to do so into the future.  Today, I continue my journey through the biggest developments of 2020.

The seventh and six most impactful developments of 2020 – it’s the topic of today’s post.

No. 7 – NRCS Final Rule on Conservation Provisions of the 1985 Farm Bill

85 Fed. Reg. 53137 (Aug. 28, 2020)

The federal government’s regulation of farm and ranch land is critical to all agricultural producers.  As a result, a significant regulatory development in 2020 involving farming practices on land makes the list as No. 7. 

Background

In late 2018, the USDA published a new interim rule concerning the conservation provisions that originated with the 1985 Farm Bill.  On August 28, 2020, a Final Rule was published.  The Final Rule adds definitions for “wetland hydrology,” “normal climatic conditions,” and “best drained condition.”  The Final Rule also modifies the manner in which the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is to delineate the various types of wetland and states that wetland determinations made between 1990 and 1996 are to be “certified” such that USDA benefits will not be denied if a farmer conducts farming activities on land that is covered by such a certification.  7 C.F.R. §12.5(b)(6)(i).   

Specifics

Delineations.  The NRCS claims that the Final Rule was prepared to clarify how the USDA “delineates, determines” and certifies wetlands located on subject land in a manner sufficient for making determinations of ineligibility for certain USDA program benefits.  However, the Final Rule does not clarify as much as it alters how the NRCS makes these determinations so as to make the process more convenient for the NRCS, and making appeals from that convenient, simplified process more difficult.  The Final Rule also represents a step away from the possible (but often inconvenient) scientific determination of wetland hydrology in regularly cropped farmed wetland across the prairie pothole region (a significant portion of the northern Great Plains and north-central Iowa and south-western Minnesota).

“Best drained condition.”  The NRCS claims that allowing the “best drained condition” of a tract is intended…” to provide clarity regarding a long-standing and practiced statutory concept that is fundamental to the identification of…” hydrologically altered farmed wetlands.  Calling this assertion a “stretch” is an understatement of substantial degree.  The phrase “best drained condition” is derived from Barthel v. United States Department of Agriculture, 181 F.3d 984 (8th Cir. 1999).   In that case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that the plaintiff landowners were entitled to the historic “wetland and farming regime” of a 450-acre hay meadow irrespective of the degree of manipulation of a ditch drainage device.  After more than 15 years and multiple contempt actions brought against the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in the Barthel litigation, the NRCS finally recognized that the Barthel decision meant that it had to apply a historic drainage (i.e., “best drained condition”) test to wetland determinations, and that the focus of the analysis was not to be on the manipulation of the drainage device, but rather on the effect of the manipulation of the drainage device on the subject property.    

Under the Final Rule, the NRCS explains how “best drained condition” is to be identified.  The NRCS asserts that the decision is to be made based upon the best available evidence.  That could include remote resources such as historical aerial imagery or other historical evidence. Indeed,  this is what the NRCS does in practice.  NRCS personnel make a decide whether or not the drainage outlet (device) is in good condition by examining the available historic aerial photographs and identifying one as providing the best historic drainage.  If the existing drainage matches that historic drainage, then aerial imagery may be used.  That’s what constitutes “best available evidence.”  One of a handful of aerial photographs taken between 1935 and 1985 is picked as the best by the agency expert.  Then it is set aside never to be used again.  The agency expert then judges if the outlet is compromised.

Since 1990, many landowners have been told that their wetland determinations made before 1996 were invalid and they requested new ones.  The new determinations resulted in more acres being determined as wetland than were designated in the original determinations.  This resulted in the loss of land use rights and the payment of penalties.  In one instance, an Iowa farmer was forced through a myriad of appeals as a result of wetland conversions done by his drainage district in the 1990s.  Following administrative appeals and court challenges (see Gunn v. United States, 118 F.3d 1233 (8th Cir. 1997), cert. den., 522 U.S. 1111 (1998)),  and after the farmer and the drainage district were forced to mitigate, an old determination surfaced showing that there actually was no wetland on his farm.  The initial determination of no wetland should have been considered certified. Will compensation be paid for the farmer’s loss of property rights?  Hardly. 

The NRCS responded to a comment about changing determinations based on new technology by stating that the limited circumstances where certified wetland determinations are subject to revision are:  “if the land in question has been removed from agricultural use, upon request of the USDA program participant, or when a violation of the wetland conservation provisions has occurred.”  In actual practice, this statement is incorrect.  NRCS states in its policy manual, The Food Security Act Manual, 5th Edition, that it will not make a review upon request unless it determines that there was an error.  Will the policy manual be amended to account for this statement in the Final Rule?  That’s a significantly important question for agricultural producers

There are numerous other aspects to the Final Rule.  In general, the Final Rule is troubling for farmers in many respects.  Perhaps the biggest is the NRCS position concerning wetland hydrology indicators for hydrologically altered wetland.  Millions of acres of these types of wetland are present in the prairie pothole states.  Also, of primary concern is the NRCS’ intent to triple the tile set-back requirements from the edge of farmed wetlands if the adjoining soil has groundwater discharge potential. 

It is difficult to believe that NRCS hydrologists, botanists and soil scientists were meaningfully involved in the writing of the Final Rule.

No. 6 – Dormant Commerce Clause

National Animal Meat Institute v. Becerra, 825 Fed. Appx. 518 (9th Cir. 2020). 

Background

Article I, section 8, clause 3 of the United States Constitution (the “Commerce Clause”) grants Congress the power to “regulate commerce” among the states.  Although the Constitution does not specifically limit a state’s power to regulate commerce, the United States Supreme Court has long interpreted the clause as an “implicit restraint on state authority, even in the absence of a conflicting federal statute.”  Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. 1 (1824) The basic precept was that when the Constitution was ratified the country was a single economic union, and the states surrendered their sovereign power to impose tariffs and restrain interstate trade.  See, e.g., THE FEDERALIST No. 7, 39–41 (Hamilton).  Instead, it is the Congress that can impose economic regulation (consistent with constitutional limits) on interstate commerce.  Thus, under the “Dormant Commerce Clause” a state cannot enact any rules or regulations that affirmatively discriminate against the economic production of goods in another state without a legitimate local justification for doing so. 

Clearly, a law that expressly mandates different treatment of in-state and out-of-state competing economic interests is unconstitutional on its face if that treatment favors in-state interests and burdens out-of-state interests. But, when a law is facially neutral, courts determine whether a Dormant Commerce Clause violation exists on the basis of whether the law imposes burdens on interstate commerce that are "clearly excessive in relation to the putative local benefits.”  See, e.g., Minnesota v. Barber, 136 U.S. 313 (1890)Gratiot Sanitary Landfill v. Michigan Department of Natural Resources, 504 U.S. 353 (1992). 

State Regulation of Out-of-State Ag Production Activities

Eggs.  In 2014, a California federal court dismissed for lack of standing a challenge brought by major egg producing states to a California law (AB1437) dictating methods of production for all eggs sold in California.  Missouri, et al. v. Harris, 58 F. Supp. 3d 1059 (E.D. Cal. 2014).  The legislation bans the sale of shell eggs within California by producers or handlers if the eggs are the product of an egg-laying hen that was confined in an enclosure that fails to comply with certain animal care standards. 

The lawsuit claimed that the law (which amended the state’s Health and Safety Code) and its implementing regulations, violated the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution and was preempted by the Federal Egg Products Inspection Act.  21 U.S.C. §1031 et seq.  Effective January 1, 2015, the law criminalized the sale of eggs for human consumption in California if the eggs were the product of egg-laying hens confined in a manner not in compliance with the law no matter where they were produced. A violation of the law constitutes a misdemeanor and is punishable with a fine of not more than $1,000 or imprisonment in the county jail for not more than 180 days or both.  Cal. Health & Safety Code §25997. 

The implementing regulations require enclosures containing nine or more egg-laying hens to provide a minimum of 116 square inches of floor space per bird. 3 C.C.R. 1350.   Enclosures containing eight or fewer birds are also regulated. Id.  Purportedly, the law was enacted to “protect California consumers from the deleterious, health, safety, and welfare effects of the sale and consumption of eggs derived from egg-laying hens that are exposed to significant stress and may result in increased exposure to disease pathogens including salmonella.” The plaintiffs, however, alleged that the California legislature’s real intent was to “level the playing field” for California producers faced with a costly California regulatory regime.  It was not enacted, the plaintiffs claimed, with the primary concern of protecting the health of California citizens.

The trial court dismissed the case for lack of standing.  The court asserted that the plaintiffs were claiming injury-in-fact to all of the citizens in their respective states, and reasoned that the increased cost of egg production in the non-California states challenging the law did not affect the general citizenry of those states.  Instead, the court determined that the California legislation would only impact egg producers that failed to conform their farming procedures to comply with the California rules.  Thus, according to the court, the plaintiffs did not bring the case on behalf of “a substantial segment of their populations.”  While the court accepted as true the claim that the California legislation would impose a substantial cost on the plaintiff-states, that cost wouldn’t be borne on the citizenry of the states as a whole, but rather just the subset of egg farmers that wished to continue selling eggs in California. 

The court also dismissed as without merit and speculative the plaintiffs’ argument that any resulting increase in the cost of eggs would injure all egg consumers.  The plaintiffs also alleged that they were disadvantaged compared to other states that were not impacted by the California legislation.  The court also dismissed this allegation as a basis for standing because the plaintiff states would not have to completely withdraw from egg production but would only incur “price fluctuations.” 

The court also determined that the threat of prosecution by California was merely speculative and was not imminent.  The court noted that the plaintiffs didn’t “articulate any concrete plan by their egg farmers to violate California’s shell egg laws.”  Merely preferring to continue to market eggs to California, the court said, was not a specific harm.  Unfortunately, the trial court failed to cite any cases to support its position on the standing issue where a state threatened to impose or did impose criminal penalties on conduct occurring in other states.  

The trial court’s opinion was affirmed on appeal.  Missouri v. Harris, 842 F.3d 658 (9th Cir. 2016).  The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.  Missouri v. Becerra, 198 L. Ed. 2d 255 (2017).    

Calves, pigs and hens.  In the fall 2018 election, California voters passed Proposition 12 (“The Farm Animal Confinement Initiative”) that establishes minimum requirements on farmers to provide more space for egg-laying hens, breeding pigs, and caves raised for veal.  Specifically, the law requires that covered animals be housed in confinement systems that comply with specific standards for freedom of movement, cage-free design and minimum floor space.  The law identifies covered animals to include veal calves, breeding pigs and egg-laying hens.  The implementing regulations prohibit a farm owner or operator from knowingly causing any covered animal to be confined in a cruel manner, as specified, and prohibits a business owner or operator from knowingly engaging in the sale within the state of shell eggs, liquid eggs, whole pork meat or whole veal meat, as defined, from animals housed in a cruel manner.

In addition to general requirements that prohibit animals from being confined in a manner that prevents lying down, standing up, fully extending limbs or turning around freely, the measure added detailed confinement space standards for farms subject to the law.

Under Proposition 12, effective January 1, 2022, all pork producers selling in the California market must raise sows in conditions where the sow has 24 square feet per sow. The law also applies to meat processors – whole cuts of veal and pork must be from animals that were housed in accordance with the space requirements of Proposition 12. 

The National Animal Meat Institute (NAMI) challenged Proposition 12 as an unconstitutional violation of the Dormant Commerce Clause by imposing substantial burdens on interstate commerce “that clearly outweigh any valid state interest.”  The trial court rejected the challenge, finding that the plaintiff failed to establish that the law discriminated against out-of-state commerce for the purpose of economic protectionism.  National Animal Meat Institute v. Becerra, 420 F. Supp. 3d 1014 (C.D. Cal. 2019).  On appeal, the appellate court affirmed.  National Animal Meat Institute v. Becerra, 825 Fed. Appx. 518 (9th Cir. 2020).  The appellate court determined that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the plaintiff was not likely to succeed on the merits of its Dormant Commerce Clause claim.  The appellate court also stated that the plaintiff acknowledged that Proposition 12 was not facially discriminatory, and had failed to produce sufficient evidence that California had a protectionist intent in enacting the law.  The appellate court noted the trial court’s finding that the law was not a price control or price affirmation statute.  Similarly, the appellate court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in holding that Proposition 12 did not substantially burden interstate commerce because it did not impact an industry that is inherently national or requires a uniform system of regulation.  The appellate court noted that the law merely precluded the sale of meat products produced by a specific method rather than burdening producers based on their geographic location. 

A separate legal action has been filed in a different California court against Proposition 12 and it continues. 

Conclusion

The regulation of activities on agricultural land, and the regulation of ag productions activities - two big developments in 2020.  Next time I start to examine the five most important ag law and tax developments of 2020.

January 9, 2021 in Regulatory Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 8, 2021

Continuing Education Events and Summer Conferences

Overview

There are a couple of online continuing education events that I will be conducting soon, and the dates are set for two summer national conferences in 2021. 

Upcoming continuing education events – it’s the topic of today’s post.

Top Developments in Agricultural Law and Tax

On Monday, January 11, beginning at 11:00 a.m. (cst), I will be hosting a two-hour CLE/CPE webinar on the top developments in agricultural law and agricultural taxation of 2020.  I will not only discuss the developments, but project how the developments will impact producers and others in the agricultural sector and what steps need to be taken as a result of the developments in the law and tax realm.  This is an event that is not only for practitioners, but producers also.  It’s an opportunity to hear the developments and provide input and discussion.  A special lower rate is provided for those not claiming continuing education credit.

You may learn more about the January 11 event and register here:  https://washburnlaw.edu/employers/cle/taxseasonupdate.html

Tax Update Webinar – CAA of 2021

On January 21, I will be hosting a two-hour webinar on the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021.  This event will begin at 10:00 a.m. (cst) and run until noon.  The new law makes significant changes to the existing PPP and other SBA loan programs, CFAP, and contains many other provisions that apply to businesses and individuals.  Also, included in the new law are provisions that extend numerous provisions that were set to expire at the end of 2020.  The PPP discussion is of critical importance to many taxpayers at the present moment, especially the impact of PPP loans not being included in income and simultaneously being deductible if used to pay for qualified business expenses.  Associated income tax basis issues loom large and vary by entity type.

You may learn more about the January 21 event and register here:  https://agmanager.info/events/kansas-income-tax-institute

Summer National Conferences

Mark your calendars now for the law school’s two summer 2021 events that I conduct on farm income tax and farm estate and business planning.  Yes, there are two locations for 2021 – one east and one west.  Each event will be simulcast live over the web if you aren’t able to attend in-person.  The eastern conference is first and is set for June 7-8 at Shawnee Lodge and Conference Center near West Portsmouth, Ohio.  The location is about two hours east of Cincinnati, 90 minutes south of Columbus, Ohio, and just over two hours from Lexington, KY.  I am presently in the process of putting the agenda together.  A room block will be established for those interested in staying at the Lodge.  For more information about Shawnee Lodge and Conference Center, you made click here:  https://www.shawneeparklodge.com/

The second summer event will be held on August 2-3 in Missoula, Montana at the Hilton Garden Inn.  Missoula is beautifully situated on three rivers and in the midst of five mountain ranges.  It is also within three driving hours of Glacier National Park, and many other scenic and historic places.  The agenda will soon be available, and a room block will also be established at the hotel.  You may learn more about the location here:  https://www.hilton.com/en/hotels/msogigi-hilton-garden-inn-missoula/

Conclusion

Take advantage of the upcoming webinars and mark you calendars for the summer national events.  I look for to seeing you at one or more of the events.

January 8, 2021 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)

Thursday, January 7, 2021

The “Top Ten” Agricultural Law and Ag Tax Developments of 2020 – Part One

Overview

After working through the “Almost Top Ten” agricultural law and tax developments of 2020, I have now reached what I consider to be the ten biggest developments of 2020 in terms of their significance to the agricultural sector as a whole.  Agricultural law and agricultural tax intersects with everyday life of farmers and ranchers in many ways.  Some of those areas of intersection of good, but some are quite troubling.  In any event, it points the need for being educated and having good legal and tax counsel that is well-trained in the special rules that apply agriculture.

Developments 10 through 8 of the “Top Ten” agricultural law and tax developments of 2020 – it’s the topic of today’s post.

No. 10 – Department of Justice Announces Investigation of Meatpackers

In May of 2020, President Trump asked the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate the pricing practices of the major meatpackers.  In addition, 11 state Attorneys General have asked the DOJ to do the same.  They pointed out in the DOJ request that the four largest beef processors control 80 percent of U.S. beef processing.  According to USDA data, boxed beef prices have recently more than doubled while live cattle prices dropped approximately 20 percent over the same timeframe.  The concern is that the meatpackers are engaged in price manipulation and other practices deemed unfair under federal law.

Questions about the practices of the meatpacking industry are not new – they have been raised for well over a century.  Indeed, a very significant federal law was enacted a century ago primarily because of the practices of the major meatpackers.  So, why is there still talk about investigations?  Is existing law ineffective?

Much of the matter is grounded in concerns about price manipulation by meatpackers.  Section 2020 of the Packers and Stockyards Act (PSA), 7 U.S.C. §§192(a) and (e) 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. This is a distinct concern in the livestock industry.

In June of 2010, the 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 includes, but is 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) is stated to depend on the nature and circumstances of the challenged conduct. The regulations specifically note 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 note that a PSA violation can occur without a finding of harm or likely harm to competition, but as noted above, that is contrary to numerous court opinions that have decided the issue.  The regulations eventually made it into the form of an Interim Final Rule but were later withdrawn.  82 FR 48594 (Oct. 18, 2017).

If the investigation is actually conducted, results could occur that would be very positive to livestock producers (and consumers) throughout the nation.

No. 9 – Conservation Easements

During 2020, the U.S. Tax Court and the appellate courts continued to issue numerous opinions involving the donation of permanent conservation easements to qualified organizations and the donor claiming an associated charitable deduction.  Presently, the U.S. Tax Court has over 100 cases on its docket involving donated conservation easements.  A donated conservation easement involves a legal agreement between a landowner and either a government agency or a land trust specifying that the donated land must be used in ways that preserve specified conservation/preservation goals. 

Very specific requirements contained in the Internal Revenue Code must be satisfied to secure a charitable deduction for the donor.  Those rules include a requirement that the donated easement be perpetual in nature and that any proceeds received upon judicial extinguishment of the easement be split between the donor and the donee in a prescribed manner.  The easement must also be valued very carefully and meet IRS guidelines.  In addition, syndicated easement transactions receive heightened scrutiny by the IRS.   A syndicated conservation easement transaction is one where the tax benefit is split among various investors.  It is a transaction that the IRS has identified as “abusive” when an appraisal is used to value the donated land that overvalues the land at issue and, thus, inflates the donor’s charitable deduction.

During 2020, the IRS offered a settlement program for persons and entities engaging in transactions that the IRS viewed as improper by allowed such taxpayers to avoid litigation by paying penalties and surrendering any tax benefits already received.  Relatedly, in 2020, the U.S. Senate started investigations into potential abuses involving conservation easements.  In August, the Senate published its findings, concluding the promoters of syndicated conservation easements and those participating in the transactions had avoided paying billions in taxes improperly.  The Senate report termed syndicated conservation easement transactions as an “abusive tax shelter,” and that allowing such deals to continue “could undermine the U.S. Tax system.”

The heightened IRS scrutiny of conservation easement transactions, coupled with the very high rate of success in court challenging the claimed charitable deductions makes it critical that attorneys, other tax advisors and appraisers follow every rule.  Deeds conveying the easement must be very carefully drafted.     The IRS has indicated that it will examine every transaction and litigate all cases where it deems an inappropriate charitable deduction has been claimed.

 No. 8 – Farm Records and FOIA

Telematch, Inc. v. United States Department of Agriculture., No. 19-2372, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 223112 (D.D.C. Nov. 27, 2020)

Farmers disclose a great deal of information and data to the USDA (federal government) to be able to participate in federal farm programs.  The information/data is often tied to the particular farmer and farm location, thus raising privacy concerns over what persons and/or entities have access to it.  Indeed, in recent years some animal activists opposed to large-scale confinement livestock production have committed acts of vandalism (and worse) against targeted facilities. 

Because the information about farmers, their operations, and the locations of fields and facilities is in the hands of the USDA it is generally subject to disclosure to the public.  In 1967, the Congress enacted the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  5 U.S.C. §552.  The FOIA requires the disclosure of federal government documents upon request.   The idea behind the law is to make federal agencies more transparent.  But can a FOIA request reach private information of farmers that is in the USDA’s hands?  Isn’t this personal information private?  It’s an important concern for farmers.  In 2020, a federal court issued an opinion that could prove to be very helpful toward easing the concerns of agricultural producers wanting to ensure that their private information is protected from public exposure. 

In Telematch, the plaintiff was in the business of collecting and analyzing agricultural data from various sources, including the federal government. The plaintiff submitted seven FOIA requests to the USDA for specific records. The records sought included farm, tract, and customer numbers created by the USDA. The USDA created these numbers to assign them to land enrolled in USDA programs and to identify program participants. The USDA denied the plaintiff’s FOIA requests either in part or fully on the basis that the records at issue were geospatial information exempt from disclosure as relating to specific farm locations and specific farmers, and on the basis that the information sought would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

The plaintiff administratively appealed the FOIA requests, and then sued in federal court three months later after being unsatisfied with the USDA’s failure to adjudicate the appeal. The plaintiff alleged that the USDA violated the FOIA by withholding the customer, farm, and tract numbers. Additionally, the plaintiff alleged the USDA violated the FOIA by following an unlawful practice of systematically failing to adhere to FOIA deadlines. The plaintiff claimed that no substantial privacy interest was at stake, and the public interest in obtaining the requested information outweighed any privacy concerns.

As a starting point, the trial court noted that the FOIA mandates that an agency disclose records on request, unless the records fall within an exclusion. As to the farm and tract numbers, the trial court held that the USDA properly withheld the information as geospatial information. The trial court held that the farm and tract numbers are geospatial information, as they refer to specific physical locations.  Thus, USDA had properly not disclosed them to the plaintiff. 

The trial court also held that the USDA also properly withheld the customer numbers from disclosure.  Disclosing them, the trial court determined, would have been an invasion of personal privacy.  The court noted that while the customer numbers alone did not reveal information about landowners, they could be combined with other public data to identify individual farmers and reveal information about their farms and financial status. The plaintiff claimed that disclosing the customer, farm, and tract numbers would allow the public to monitor how the USDA was administering its farm programs.  Likewise, the plaintiff argued that the disclosure of the information would let the public determine whether the USDA was overpaying program participants and allow the public to determine whether farmers are complying with the USDA program.  However, the trial court concluded that neither of the plaintiff’s arguments warranted the disclosure of the numbered information because the plaintiff showed no evidence to support its claim of fraud and because the FOIA’s purpose is to shed light on what the government is doing rather than the conduct of USDA program participants. As a result, the court held that the USDA also properly withheld the customer numbers.

As for the plaintiff’s claim that the USDA systematically failed to adhere to FOIA deadlines, the court held that the plaintiff lacked standing for failing to establish the existence of an unlawful policy or practice. The court noted that the USDA responded to the FOIA requests according to then-existing USDA regulations. The regulations stated that FOIA requests served on USDA required prepayments for the request to commence. The plaintiff failed to prepay on some of the requests, and the USDA completed the remainder of the requests within FOIA deadlines. Finally, the court held that the USDA’s failure to adhere to statutory deadlines to process the plaintiff’s administrative appeals did not rise to the level of systematically ignoring FOIA requests.

An appeal was filed in the case on December 21, 2020.

Conclusion

The DOJ investigating meatpackers; tax issues with donated conservation easements; and the privacy of farm data – developments ten through eight.  Next time, I continue working my way toward the most significant ag law and ag tax development of 2020.

January 7, 2021 in Income Tax, Regulatory Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 3, 2021

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

Overview

I continue today with my perusal of the biggest developments in agricultural law and taxation from 2020 with the second installment of the “almost top 10” of 2020.  In part one, I covered deprioritization (or the lack thereof) of withheld taxes in a Chapter 12 bankruptcy; the preferential payment rule in bankruptcy involving the Dean Foods matter; the significant ag nuisance jury verdict in North Carolina involving Murphy Brown; and a recent federal court opinion holding that filing a tax return with false information on

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

“Renewable” Energy Cash Grants

Section 1603 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Tax Act (ARRTA) was a green energy subsidy program created by the Congress and signed into law as a part of the 2009 economic “stimulus” package.  The program created a system of cash grants in lieu of investment tax credits for entities that installed various types of alternative energy property such as solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, and hydropower.  The purpose of payments (which were made after a qualified energy system was installed) was to reimburse grant recipients for a portion of the cost they incurred to install the energy systems at business locations.  The program started in 2009 and ended in 2012.

The program is not without criticism and IRS scrutiny.  The IRS rigorously audits companies utilizing the grants and, in some instances, the courts have ruled for the companies when the IRS partially denied the grants.  Those cases primarily involved indemnity agreements that allowed the financiers of the projects to recover their funds elsewhere if the grant was improperly disallowed.  In such “tax equity” deals it is common for the developer that finances a project to indemnify the tax equity investors if the tax benefits are less than expected. See, e.g., Alta Wind I Owner Lessor C v. United States, No. 13-402, 2020 U.S. Claims LEXIS 2071 (Fed. Cl. Oct. 21, 2020).  In Alta, the wind energy company plaintiff claimed that the government underpaid on the Sec. 1603 grant.  The court ruled that the company had alleged sufficient facts and injury to satisfy the constitutional standing requirement for the court to hear the case because the company had purchased the energy facilities at issue via a negotiated business transaction and alleged it had not been paid in full under Sec. 1603.

The IRS also won a significant case in 2020.  In early 2012, the plaintiff placed a qualified wind facility into service at a cost of $433,077,031. The plaintiff applied for a Section 1603 grant (in lieu of tax credits) of $129,923,109. As part of the grant application, the plaintiff submitted a development agreement that claimed to show a “proof of payment” in support of a $60 million development fee. The plaintiff, a “project company,” paid the development fee to its parent company, Invenergy, LLC. The U.S. Treasury awarded the plaintiff a grant of $117,216,098. The Treasury explained that the reason for the $12.7 million shortfall was based on the plaintiff’s excessive cost basis in the facility based on the inclusion of the development fee in the cost basis calculation. The Treasury asserted that the development fee transaction was a sham lacking economic substance shaped solely by tax avoidance motives.

The court agreed. Bank records showed that money passed through the bank accounts of several entities related to the plaintiff by wire transfer and then back into the original account. The court determined that the plaintiff could not establish any business purpose or economic substance to the banking transactions. A CPA from a national firm, as the result of an audit, testified that the development agreement contained no quantifiable services. Invenergy, LLC, was not able to produce any accounting journal entries showing a business purpose for the banking transactions. Thus, the court determined that the evidence showed a development fee with no quantifiable services, circular wire transfers that started and ended in the same bank account on the same day, none of which were corroborated by independent testimony. The court denied the plaintiff reimbursement of the $12,707,011 cash grant, and the U.S. Treasury was entitled to recover an overpayment of $4,380,039. Bishop Hill Energy, LLC, et al. v. United States, 143 Fed. Cl. 540 (2019). The court also reached the same conclusion in California Ridge Wind Energy, LLC v. United States, 143 Fed. Cl. 757 (2019).

The appellate court affirmed, upholding the trial court’s finding that amounts stated by the plaintiff in development agreements pertaining to the wind farms did not reliably indicate the development costs. The appellate court, on a consolidated appeal of the two cases, noted the “round-trip” nature of the payments; the absence in the agreements of any meaningful description of the development services to be provided, and the fact that all, or nearly all, of the development services had been completed by the time the agreements were executed. The appellate court also determined that the services were not quantifiable. As a result, the government could recover $10 million in cash grants from the two companies. California Ridge Wind Energy, LLC v. United States, 959 F.3d 145 (Fed. Cir. 2020).

The case is significant because it could impact the computation of tax credits for future projects. 

Trust Income Tax Regulations

On May 7, 2020, the IRS issued proposed regulations providing guidance on the deductibility of expenses that estates and non-grantor trusts incur.  REG-113295-18. The reason for the proposed regulations is that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), effective for tax years beginning after 2017 and before 2026, bars individual taxpayers from claiming miscellaneous itemized deductions.  I.R.C. §67(g).  This TCJA suspension of miscellaneous itemized deductions for individuals raised questions as to whether and/or how estates and non-grantor trusts are impacted.  In late September, the IRS finalized the regulations.  TD 9918 (Sept. 21, 2020).

The Final Regulations affirm that deductions for costs which are paid or incurred in connection with the administration of an estate or trust and which would not have been incurred if the property were not held in such trust or estate remain deductible in computing AGI.  In other words, I.R.C. §67(e) overrides I.R.C. §67(g).  However, the Final Regulations do not provide any guidance on whether these deductions (including those under I.R.C. §§642(b), 651 and 661) are deductible in computing alternative minimum tax for an estate or trust.  That point was deemed to be outside the scope of the Final Regulations. 

As for excess deductions, the Final Regulations confirm the position of the Proposed Regulations that excess deductions retain their nature in the hands of the beneficiary.  Treas. Reg. §1.642(h)-2(a)(2).   Excess deductions passing from a trust or an estate have their nature pegged by Treas. Reg. §1.652(b)-3. The nature of excess deductions of a trust or an estate is determined by a three-step process:  1) direct expenses are allocated first (e.g., real estate taxes offset real estate rental income); 2) the trustee can exercise discretion when allocating remaining deductions – in essence, offsetting less favored deductions for individuals by using them against remaining trust/estate income (also, if direct expenses exceed the associated income, the excess can be offset at this step); 3) once all of the trust/estate income has been offset any remaining deductions constitute excess deductions when the trust/estate is terminated that are allocated to the beneficiaries in accordance with Treas. Reg. §1.642(h)-4.  Treas. Reg. 1.642(h)-2(b)(2).   

Lying With Purpose of Harming Livestock Facility is Protected Speech

Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Schmidt, 434 F. Supp. 3d 974 (D. Kan. 2020)

Beginning with Kansas in 1990, several states have enacted legislation designed to protect confined animal production facilities from sabotage activity from groups and individuals opposed to animal agriculture.  The laws generally forbid undercover filming or photography of activity on farms without the owner's consent.  They have been challenged as unconstitutional on numerous occasions. 

In this federal case involving Kansas law, the plaintiffs are a consortium of activist groups regularly conduct undercover investigations of livestock production facilities. Some of the plaintiffs gain access to farms through employment without disclosing the real purpose for which they seek employment (and lie about their ill motives if asked) and wear body cameras while working. For those hired into managerial and/or supervisory positions, they gain the ability to close off parts of the facility to avoid detection when filming and videoing. The film and photos obtained are circulated through the media and with the intent of encouraging public officials, including law enforcement, to take action against the facilities. The employee making the clandestine video or taking pictures, is on notice that the facility owner forbids such conduct via posted notices at the facility. The other plaintiffs utilize the data collected to cast the facilities in a negative public light but do no “investigation.”

In 1990, Kansas enacted the Kansas Farm Animal and Field Crop and Research Facilities Protect Act (Act). K.S.A. §§ 47-1825 et seq.  The Act makes it a crime to commit certain acts without the facility owner’s consent where the plaintiff commits the act with the intent to damage an animal facility. Included among the prohibited acts are damaging or destroying an animal facility or an animal or other property at an animal facility; exercising control over an animal facility, an animal from an animal facility or animal facility property with the intent to deprive the owner of it; entering an animal facility that is not open to the public to take photographs or recordings; and remaining at an animal facility against the owner's wishes. K.S.A. § 47-1827(a)-(d). In addition, K.S.A. § 47-1828 provides a private right of action for "[a]ny person who has been damaged by reason of a violation of K.S.A. § 47-1827 against the person who caused the damage." For purposes of the Act, a facility owner’s consent is not effective if it is induced by force, fraud, deception duress or threat. K.S.A. § 47-1826(e). The plaintiff challenged the constitutionality of the Act, and filed a motion for summary judgment. The defendant also motioned for summary judgment on the basis that the plaintiffs lacked standing or, in the alternative, the Act barred trespass rather than speech.

On the standing issue, the trial court held that the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the portions of the Act governing physical damage to an animal facility (for lack of expressed intent to cause harm) and the private right of action provision, However, the trial court determined that the plaintiffs did have standing to challenge the exercise of control provision, entering a facility to take photographs, etc., and remaining at a facility against the owner’s wishes to take pictures, etc. The plaintiffs that did no investigations but received the information from the investigations also were deemed to have standing on the same grounds. On the merits, the trial court determined that the Act regulates speech by limiting what the plaintiffs could say and by barring pictures/videos. The trial court determined that the provisions of the Act at issue were content-based and restricted speech based on viewpoint – barring only that speech that would harm an animal facility. The trial court determined that barring lying is only constitutionally protected when it is associated with a legally recognizable harm, and the Act is unconstitutional to the extent it bars false speech intended to damage livestock facilities. Because the provisions of the Act at issue restrict content-based speech, its constitutionality is measured under a strict scrutiny standard. As such, a compelling state interest in protecting legally recognizable rights must exist. The trial court concluded that even if privacy and property rights involved a compelling state interest, the Act must be narrowly tailored to protect those rights. By focusing only on those intending to harm owners of a livestock facility, the Act did not bar all violations of property and privacy rights. The trial court also determined that the Governor was a proper defendant. 

In a later action, the court entered a permanent injunction against enforcement of Kan. Stat. Ann. §§47-1827(b)-(d).  Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Kelly, No. 18-2657-KHV, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 58909 (D. Kan. Apr. 3, 2020).  A notice of appeal of the court’s decision was filed on May 1, 2020.  In July, the court trimmed-down the plaintiff’s request of attorney fees and costs from almost $250,000 to slightly over $176,000.  Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Kelly, No. 18-2657-KHV, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 124,480 (D. Kan. Jul. 15, 2020). 

Conclusion

In the next post, I will continue the look at the “almost Top 10” of 2020 with Part 3.

January 3, 2021 in Estate Planning, Income Tax, Regulatory Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Can One State Dictate Agricultural Practices in Other States?

Overview

For several years now, some states (particularly California) have been testing the boundaries of the constitutional limits on economic regulation. The issue could have troubling implications for agriculture.  These states have enacted laws setting requirements that out-of-state producers of agricultural goods must meet before those goods can be sold in the state establishing the requirements. 

Clearly, a state can regulate economic activity within its borders, and can also establish the rules for goods that are sold and services that are provided within its jurisdiction.  However, when do those rules and regulations cross the constitutional line from being within a state’s authority to impermissibly regulating another state’s economic activity and national interests?

A state’s ability to regulate the economic activity of another state – it’s the topic of today’s post.

What Is the “Dormant Commerce Clause”?

Article I, section 8, clause 3 of the United States Constitution (the “Commerce Clause”) grants Congress the power to “regulate commerce” among the states.  Although the Constitution does not specifically limit a state’s power to regulate commerce, the United States Supreme Court has long interpreted the clause as an “implicit restraint on state authority, even in the absence of a conflicting federal statute.”  Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. 1 (1824) The basic precept was that when the Constitution was ratified the country was a single economic union, and the states surrendered their sovereign power to impose tariffs and restrain interstate trade.  See, e.g., THE FEDERALIST No. 7, 39–41 (Hamilton).  Instead, it is the Congress that can impose economic regulation (consistent with constitutional limits) on interstate commerce.  Thus, under the “Dormant Commerce Clause” a state cannot enact any rules or regulations that affirmatively discriminate against the economic production of goods in another state without a legitimate local justification for doing so. 

Clearly, a law that expressly mandates different treatment of in-state and out-of-state competing economic interests is unconstitutional on its face if that treatment favors in-state interests and burdens out-of-state interests. But, when a law is facially neutral, courts determine whether a Dormant Commerce Clause violation exists on the basis of whether the law imposes burdens on in terstate commerce that are "clearly excessive in relation to the putative local benefits.”  See, e.g., Minnesota v. Barber, 136 U.S. 313 (1890); Gratiot Sanitary Landfill v. Michigan Department of Natural Resources, 504 U.S. 353 (1992). 

Recent Cases Involving Agriculture

Eggs.  In 2014, a California federal court dismissed for lack of standing a challenge brought by major egg producing states to a California law (AB1437) dictating methods of production for all eggs sold in California.  Missouri, et al. v. Harris, 58 F. Supp. 3d 1059 (E.D. Cal. 2014).  The legislation bans the sale of shell eggs within California by producers or handlers if the eggs are the product of an egg-laying hen that was confined in an enclosure that fails to comply with certain animal care standards. 

The lawsuit claimed that the law (which amended the state’s Health and Safety Code) and its implementing regulations, violated the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution and was preempted by the Federal Egg Products Inspection Act.  21 U.S.C. §1031 et seq.  Effective January 1, 2015, the law criminalized the sale of eggs for human consumption in California if the eggs were the product of egg-laying hens confined in a manner not in compliance with the law no matter where they were produced. A violation of the law constitutes a misdemeanor and is punishable with a fine of not more than $1,000 or imprisonment in the county jail for not more than 180 days or both.  Cal. Health & Safety Code §25997. 

The implementing regulations require enclosures containing nine or more egg-laying hens to provide a minimum of 116 square inches of floor space per bird. 3 C.C.R. 1350 Enclosures containing eight or fewer birds are also regulated. Id.  Purportedly, the law was enacted to “protect California consumers from the deleterious, health, safety, and welfare effects of the sale and consumption of eggs derived from egg-laying hens that are exposed to significant stress and may result in increased exposure to disease pathogens including salmonella.” The plaintiffs, however, alleged that the California legislature’s real intent was to “level the playing field” for California producers faced with a costly California regulatory regime.  It was not enacted, the plaintiffs claimed, with the primary concern of protecting the health of California citizens.

The trial court dismissed the case for lack of standing.  The court asserted that the plaintiffs were claiming injury-in-fact to all of the citizens in their respective states, and reasoned that the increased cost of egg production in the non-California states challenging the law did not affect the general citizenry of those states.  Instead, the court determined that the California legislation would only impact egg producers that failed to conform their farming procedures to comply with the California rules.  Thus, according to the court, the plaintiffs did not bring the case on behalf of “a substantial segment of their populations.”  While the court accepted as true the claim that the California legislation would impose a substantial cost on the plaintiff-states, that cost wouldn’t be borne on the citizenry of the states as a whole, but rather just the subset of egg farmers that wished to continue selling eggs in California. 

The court also dismissed as without merit and speculative the plaintiffs’ argument that any resulting increase in the cost of eggs would injure all egg consumers.  The plaintiffs also alleged that they were disadvantaged compared to other states that were not impacted by the California legislation.  The court also dismissed this allegation as a basis for standing because the plaintiff states would not have to completely withdraw from egg production but would only incur “price fluctuations.” 

The court also determined that the threat of prosecution by California was merely speculative and was not imminent.  The court noted that the plaintiffs didn’t “articulate any concrete plan by their egg farmers to violate California’s shell egg laws.”  Merely preferring to continue to market eggs to California, the court said, was not a specific harm.  Unfortunately, the trial court failed to cite any cases to support its position on the standing issue where a state threatened to impose or did impose criminal penalties on conduct occurring in other states.  

The trial court’s opinion was affirmed on appeal.  Missouri v. Harris, 842 F.3d 658 (9th Cir. 2016).  The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.  Missouri v. Becerra, 198 L. Ed. 2d 255 (2017).    

Beyond eggs.  In the fall 2018 election, California voters passed Proposition 12 (“The Farm Animal Confinement Initiative”) that establishes minimum requirements on farmers to provide more space for egg-laying hens, breeding pigs, and caves raised for veal.  Specifically, the law requires that covered animals be housed in confinement systems that comply with specific standards for freedom of movement, cage-free design and minimum floor space.  The law identifies covered animals to include veal calves, breeding pigs and egg-laying hens.  The implementing regulations prohibit a farm owner or operator from knowingly causing any covered animal to be confined in a cruel manner, as specified, and prohibits a business owner or operator from knowingly engaging in the sale within the state of shell eggs, liquid eggs, whole pork meat or whole veal meat, as defined, from animals housed in a cruel manner.

In addition to general requirements that prohibit animals from being confined in a manner that prevents lying down, standing up, fully extending limbs or turning around freely, the measure added detailed confinement space standards for farms subject to the law.

Under Proposition 12, effective January 1, 2022, all pork producers selling in the California market must raise sows in conditions where the sow has 24 square feet per sow. The law also applies to meat processors – whole cuts of veal and pork must be from animals that were housed in accordance with the space requirements of Proposition 12. 

The National Animal Meat Institute (NAMI) challenged Proposition 12 as an unconstitutional violation of the Dormant Commerce Clause by imposing substantial burdens on interstate commerce “that clearly outweigh any valid state interest.”  The trial court rejected the challenge, finding that the plaintiff failed to establish that the law discriminated against out-of-state commerce for the purpose of economic protectionism.  National Animal Meat Institute v. Becerra, 420 F. Supp. 3d 1014 (C.D. Cal. 2019)On appeal, the appellate court affirmed.  National Animal Meat Institute v. Becerra, 825 Fed. Appx. 518 (9th Cir. 2020).  The appellate court determined that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the plaintiff was not likely to succeed on the merits of its Dormant Commerce Clause claim.  The appellate court also stated that the plaintiff acknowledged that Proposition 12 was not facially discriminatory, and had failed to produce sufficient evidence that California had a protectionist intent in enacting the law.  The appellate court noted the trial court’s finding that the law was not a price control or price affirmation statute.  Similarly, the appellate court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in holding that Proposition 12 did not substantially burden interstate commerce because it did not impact an industry that is inherently national or requires a uniform system of regulation.  The appellate court noted that the law merely precluded the sale of meat products produced by a specific method rather than burdening producers based on their geographic location. 

A separate legal action has been filed in a different California court against Proposition 12 and it continues. 

Conclusion

Frankly, it’s difficult to not see the protectionist intent behind the California laws. Even assuming explicit protectionist intent is not present, in the litigation challenging the California laws, substantial data was produced showing the economic harm to out-of-state egg and pork producers wishing to sell their products in the California market. 

Of course, if the California requirements applied only to California egg and pork producers, out-of-state producers would be at an economic advantage.  If the point of the laws is health-based, it would seem that requiring egg and pork products to meet federal quality standards should be sufficient for eggs and pork to be sold in California.  Allowing one state to regulate certain sectors of another state’s agricultural production is the reason economic regulation among the states was reserved for the Congress in the first place.  If the courts don’t get this issue correct, problems abound for agriculture – regulating out-of-state agricultural activities won’t stop with eggs and pork.

December 22, 2020 in Regulatory Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 12, 2020

What Farm Records and Information Are Protected From a FOIA Request?

Overview

Farmers disclose a great deal of information and data to the USDA (federal government) to be able to participate in federal farm programs.  The information/data is often tied to the particular farmer and farm location, thus raising privacy concerns over what persons and/or entities have access to it.  Indeed, in recent years some animal activists opposed to large-scale confinement livestock production have committed acts of vandalism (and worse) against targeted facilities. 

Because the information about farmers, their operations, and the locations of fields and facilities is in the hands of the USDA it is generally subject to disclosure to the public.  In 1967, the Congress enacted the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  5 U.S.C. §552.  The FOIA requires the disclosure of federal government documents upon request.   The idea behind the law is to make federal agencies more transparent.  But can a FOIA request reach private information of farmers that is in the USDA’s hands?  Isn’t this personal information private?  It’s an important concern for farmers.

The reach of a FOIA request and its application to farmers – it’s the topic of today’s post.

FOIA Background

The FOIA requires that a federal agency must disclose requested records unless the records fall within an exemption. There are nine primary exemptions that protect certain documents, data and other information from a valid FOIA request.  They are as follows: 1) classified documents governed by the President via Executive Order; 2) records that are “related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency”; 3) information that has been “specifically exempted from disclosure by statute”; 4) information that is protected by trade secret; 5) “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency”; 6) information contained in personnel and medical files and similar files when disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy; 7)  various types of law enforcement information; 8) matters contained in or related to examination, operating, or condition reports prepared by or for regulators or supervisors of financial institutions; and 9) geological information and data, including maps, concerning wells. 5 U.S.C. §552(b)(1-9).

Over the years, the courts have construed the exemptions narrowly based on a rationale that the FOIA has a strong presumption in favor of disclosure.  See, e.g., United States Department of State v. Ray, 502 U.S. 164 (1991).  When a request is made for documents from an agency, the particular government agency holding the requested information bears the burden to show that an exemption applies.

Application to Agriculture

As applied to agriculture, the most common exemptions are when the requested information is protected by statute, and when disclosure of the requested information would result in a clear invasion of privacy.  Sometimes the exemption for geological information also comes into play. 

Statutorily protected information.  With respect to the exemption for statutorily protected information contained in 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(3), there are two aspect to the exemption.  First, if the governing statute absolutely bars disclosure, there is no agency discretion.  Alternatively, the applicable statute may only place a limited prohibition on disclosure and define particular matters to be withheld or provide specific criteria for withholding.  In that instance, the information sought is only protected from disclosure if the specific requirements of the statute are satisfied.  As applied to agriculture, federal law provides that “the Secretary, any officer or employee of the Department of Agriculture, or any contractor or cooperator of the Department, shall not disclose (A) information provided by an agricultural producer or owner of agricultural land concerning the agricultural operation, farming or conservation practices, or the land itself, in order to participate in programs of the Department; or (B) geospatial information otherwise maintained by the Secretary about agricultural land or operations for which information described in subparagraph (A) is provided." 7 U.S.C. § 8791(b)(2)(A)(B). The USDA commonly uses this provision as its basis for not disclosing farm and tract numbers (along with maps and aerial photographs) as protected geospatial information.   

Personnel, medical and similar files.  The USDA also often uses the exemption for personnel, medical and similar files located at 5 U.S.C. §552(b)(6) on the basis that the disclosure of such documents would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy.  Living individuals have a privacy interest in not having agencies disseminate personal information about them.  But, for a government agency to withhold information under this exemption, the privacy interest must outweigh the public interest.  The basic legal question is whether the disclosure of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.  There’s a two-step process in answering that question.  The first step involves determining whether disclosure would compromise a substantial privacy interest.  If it would, that substantial interest must be weighed against the public interest in the release of the records. The  party requesting the records bears the burden of identifying an overriding public interest and demonstrating that disclosure would further that interest.  See, e.g., Stein v. Central Intelligence Agency, et al., 454 F. Supp. 3d 1 (D. D.C. 2020).  The requester "must show that the public interest sought to be advanced is a significant one" and "the information is likely to advance that interest."  See, e.g.,  National Archives & Records Administration. v. Favish, et al., 541 U.S. 157 (2004).

Recent Case

The issue of what farm records are exempt from a FOIA request was at issue in a recent case.  In Telematch, Inc. v. United States Department of Agriculture., No. 19-2372, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 223112 (D.D.C. Nov. 27, 2020), the plaintiff was in the business of collecting and analyzing agricultural data from various sources, including the federal government. The plaintiff submitted seven FOIA requests to the USDA for specific records. The records sought included farm, tract, and customer numbers created by the USDA. The USDA created these numbers to assign them to land enrolled in USDA programs and to identify program participants. The USDA denied the plaintiff’s FOIA requests either in part or fully on the basis that the records at issue were geospatial information exempt from disclosure as relating to specific farm locations and specific farmers, and on the basis that the information sought would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

The plaintiff administratively appealed the FOIA requests, and then sued in federal court three months later after being unsatisfied with the USDA’s failure to adjudicate the appeal. The plaintiff alleged that the USDA violated the FOIA by withholding the customer, farm, and tract numbers. Additionally, the plaintiff alleged the USDA violated the FOIA by following an unlawful practice of systematically failing to adhere to FOIA deadlines. The plaintiff claimed that no substantial privacy interest was at stake, and the public interest in obtaining the requested information outweighed any privacy concerns.

As a starting point, the trial court noted that the FOIA mandates that an agency disclose records on request, unless the records fall within an exclusion. As to the farm and tract numbers, the trial court held that the USDA properly withheld the information as geospatial information. The trial court held that the farm and tract numbers are geospatial information, as they refer to specific physical locations.  Thus, USDA had properly not disclosed them to the plaintiff. 

The trial court also held that the USDA also properly withheld the customer numbers from disclosure.  Disclosing them, the trial court determined, would have been an invasion of personal privacy.  The court noted that while the customer numbers alone did not reveal information about landowners, they could be combined with other public data to identify individual farmers and reveal information about their farms and financial status. The plaintiff claimed that disclosing the customer, farm, and tract numbers would allow the public to monitor how the USDA was administering its farm programs.  Likewise, the plaintiff argued that the disclosure of the information would let the public determine whether the USDA was overpaying program participants and allow the public to determine whether farmers are complying with the USDA program.  However, the trial court concluded that neither of the plaintiff’s arguments warranted the disclosure of the numbered information because the plaintiff showed no evidence to support its claim of fraud and because the FOIA’s purpose is to shed light on what the government is doing rather than the conduct of USDA program participants. As a result, the court held that the USDA also properly withheld the customer numbers.

As for the plaintiff’s claim that the USDA systematically failed to adhere to FOIA deadlines, the court held that the plaintiff lacked standing for failing to establish the existence of an unlawful policy or practice. The court noted that the USDA responded to the FOIA requests according to then-existing USDA regulations. The regulations stated that FOIA requests served on USDA required prepayments for the request to commence. The plaintiff failed to prepay on some of the requests, and the USDA completed the remainder of the requests within FOIA deadlines. Finally, the court held that the USDA’s failure to adhere to statutory deadlines to process the plaintiff’s administrative appeals did not rise to the level of systematically ignoring FOIA requests.

Conclusion

The trial court’s decision in the Telematch case is welcome news to farmers.  While the FOIA generally allows the public to gain access to governmental records, there are key exceptions that can apply to data the USDA collects from farmers participating in federal farm programs. 

December 12, 2020 in Regulatory Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Of Nuisance, Overtime and Firearms – Potpourri of Ag Law Developments

Overview

As readers of this blog know, periodically I write an article focusing on recent court developments.  This is one of those articles.  Recently, federal and state courts have issued some rather significant opinions involving livestock odors, overtime wages for dairy workers and the Second Amendment right to bear arms. 

A potpourri of ag law and related issues – it’s the topic of today’s post.

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

McKiver v. Murphy-Brown, LLC, No. 19-1019, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 36416 (4th Cir. Nov. 19, 2020)

A nuisance is an invasion of an individual's interest in the use and enjoyment of land rather than an interference with the exclusive possession or ownership of the land. The concept has become increasingly important in recent years due to land use conflicts posed by large-scale, industrialized confinement livestock operations.  Indeed, the industrialization of agriculture has given rise to nuisance suits brought by farmers against large-scale agricultural operations.

Nuisance law prohibits land uses that unreasonably and substantially interfere with another individual's quiet use and enjoyment of property.  The doctrine is based on two interrelated concepts: (1) landowners have the right to use and enjoy property free of unreasonable interferences by others; and (2) landowners must use property so as not to injure adjacent owners.

Nuisance law is rooted in the common law and has been developed over several centuries as courts settled land use conflicts.  Nuisance law is always changing, and the legal rules vary between jurisdictions.  Nuisance law is important to agriculture because of the noxious odors produced by many farm operations, especially those involving livestock production.

The two primary issues at stake in any agricultural nuisance dispute are whether the use alleged to be a nuisance is reasonable for the area and whether the use alleged to be a nuisance substantially interferes with the use and enjoyment of neighboring land.  Another issue may be whether the complained-of activity is protected by a state right-to-farm statute.

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

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

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

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

Overtime Exemption for Dairy Workers Unconstitutional. 

Martinez-Cuevas v. Deruyter Brothers Dairy, Inc., No. 96267-7, 2020 Wash. LEXIS 660 (Wash. Sup. Ct. Nov. 5, 2020)

Federal law provides an exemption from paying overtime wages for persons employed in agriculture.  Many states have a comparable exemption.  In this case, the exemption contained in Washington law was at issue.

The plaintiffs brought a class action on behalf of 300 of the defendant’s workers challenging the exemption of dairy workers from overtime pay under the Washington Minimum Wage Act. The plaintiffs also claimed that the defendant violated other wage and hour rules. The plaintiffs claimed that the overtime exemption violated the equal protection clause in the state constitution and was racially biased against Hispanic workers.

The state Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, the majority held that the exemption undermined a “fundamental right” to health and safety protections for workers in dangerous jobs that the state Constitution guarantees via the privileges and immunities clause. The majority focused on Article II, Sec. 35 of the Washington Constitution requiring the legislature to pass law necessary “for the protection of persons working in…employments dangerous to life or deleterious to health,” and Article I which the majority construed as protecting “fundamental rights of state citizenship.” The majority believed that there was a connection between the requirement that the legislature pass laws to protect workers in dangerous occupations and the minimum wage law, and that the legislature didn’t have a reasonable basis to exclude dairy workers from the overtime pay requirements of the law.

The dissenting justices pointed out that overtime pay is not a fundamental constitutional right and, as such, does not implicated the privileges and immunities clause. Instead, the state legislature has a “wide berth” to decide that laws that are required to carry out that purpose. The dissent pointed out that the legislature could simply repeal the overtime law and no person would have a personal or private common law right to insist on overtime pay absent an employment contract with a term promising overtime pay.

The ruling means that dairy farmers will be required to pay $20.54 per overtime hour beginning in 2021.  That is the case, of course, for the workers that still have a job, have overtime hours and aren’t displaced by automation.

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

Folajtar v. The Attorney General of the United States, No. 19-1687, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 37006 (3rd Cir. Nov. 24, 2020)

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

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

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

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

Expect this case to be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Justices Barrett and Kavanaugh have already indicated that they agree with the dissent based on their comments in earlier cases.

Conclusion

There are always significant developments in the law impacting farmers and ranchers and rural landowners.  The three court opinions discussed in this article are each significant in their own respect.  Stay informed.  And, on this Thanksgiving Day 2020, if you don’t have everything you want, be thankful for the things you don’t have that you don’t want.

November 26, 2020 in Civil Liabilities, Criminal Liabilities, Income Tax, Regulatory Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Beef May Be For Dinner, But Where’s It From?

Overview

Product labels abound.  For just about any product, the product label tells the consumer where that product was manufactured.  Food products also carry labels with lots of information.  The purpose is to give the consumer information about the product so that an informed buying decision can be made – including distinguishing products among various competitors.    

A contentious issue for a number of years in the livestock industry has involved the product label for beef.  When the label on a beef meat product in the grocery store says, for example, “Product of the U.S.A.” what message does that convey to the consumer?  What does it mean to you?  The answer is obvious.  But is the answer correct?

Labels on beef products – it’s the topic of today’s post.

Recent Case

If time permitted today, I would dig through the background on meat product labeling a bit more.  The legislative, statutory and regulatory history is quite interesting.  But, time does not permit that excursion today.  So, I will unravel the matter by discussing a recent case.

In Thornton v. Tyson Foods, Inc. et al., No. 1:20-CV-105-KWR-SMV, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 156059 (D. N.M. Aug. 27, 2020), the plaintiffs are beef producers and consumers that filed suit against the defendant, a producer and seller of beef products to retailers of beef products. The plaintiffs claimed that the defendant misleads retailers and consumers by labeling their beef “Product of the USA” when, in fact, the cattle are raised in foreign countries and imported into the United States as live cattle that are then slaughtered and processed in the United States.

The consumer plaintiff asserted a supposed class action of consumers that were allegedly deceived into paying higher prices for what the consumer believed to be American beef when it was allegedly foreign beef. The cattle producer plaintiff asserted a supposed class action of cattlemen who receive less for their cattle because of the influx of imported cattle that are then sold as a product of the United States. The consumer plaintiff alleged violations of the New Mexico Unfair Practices Act (NMUPA); breach of express warranty; and unjust enrichment. The cattle producer plaintiff also alleged a violation of the NMUPA as well as unjust enrichment, but later sought to amend the complaint to replace the NMUPA claim with a claim for violation of the New Mexico Antitrust Act.

The court noted that federal law via the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) bars meat from being sold “under any …labeling which is false or misleading, but labeling and containers which are not false or misleading and which are approved by the Secretary are permitted.” The USDA regulates beef labels through the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). The court noted that the FSIS administers a label approval program “ensuring” that no meat products are falsely labeled. The court noted that the label at issue was approved by FSIS and found not to be misleading or false. The court also noted that the phrase “Product of the U.S.A.” to actually mean that the product is derived only from animals that were born, raised, slaughtered, and prepared in the United States. Instead, the phrase “Product of the U.S.A.” only means that the product was slaughtered in the United States. Also, the court noted that the FMIA treats imported beef products as a “domestic” product upon entry into the United States.

Thus, the court concluded, the law and related regulations were clear that cattle born and raised in a foreign country but slaughtered int the United States can be properly labeled as “Product of the U.S.A.” The court determined that the plaintiff’s state law claims were preempted by federal law. In addition, the court held that if the NMUPA claims were not preempted they would fail as a matter of law because the cattleman plaintiff is a competitor of the defendant under New Mexico law and because the defendant’s conduct is permissible under federal law. The unjust enrichment claims also failed as a matter of law because there is nothing unjust about the defendant’s use of a label that has been approved by the federal government. The breach of warranty claim also failed due to lack of pre-suit notice being given to the defendant in accordance with state law. The court also rejected the cattleman plaintiff’s attempt to amend the complaint to asset a violation of the New Mexico Antitrust Act on the basis of preemption by the FMIA, lack of standing and no anti-competitive injury. Consequently, all of the plaintiffs’ claims were either preempted or failed as a matter of law for failure to state a claim for which relief could be granted. The case was dismissed with prejudice. 

Conclusion

There you have it – the phrase, “Product of the U.S.A.” doesn’t mean that the animal from which the labeled meat came from was born and raised in the United States on a domestic cattle ranching operation.  It only means that the animal was slaughtered in the United States.  Words and phrases don’t necessarily mean what they say that they mean. 

The black-robed word peddlers will straighten it all out.

November 18, 2020 in Regulatory Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 6, 2020

Ag and Tax In the Courts

Overview

The courts keep issuing rulings of importance to agricultural producers and others involved in agriculture or who own agricultural land.  Also, tax issues of general relevance continue to be resolved in the courts.  In today’s post, I take a look at some recent cases involving farm bankruptcy; the “public trust” doctrine; the proper tax classification of a work relationship; on-farm sales of processed beef; and zoning. 

A potpourri of ag and tax legal issues – these are the topics of today’s post.

Court Denies Proposed Sale of Land by Chapter 12 Debtor

In re Holthaus, No. 20-40065, 2020 Bankr. LEXIS 3001 (Bankr. D. Kan. Oct. 26, 2020)

The debtors (a married couple) owned farmland in two counties. They filed Chapter 12 bankruptcy and sought to sell three tracts of land through two contracts. 11 U.S.C. §363(b)(1) provides that a trustee "after notice and a hearing, may use, sell or lease, other than in the ordinary course of business, property of the estate." In determining whether to approve a proposed sale under 11 U.S.C. §363, courts generally apply standards that, although stated various ways, represent essentially a business judgment test. The debtors had not filed a reorganization plan at the time of the proposed sale of the land.

The first contract consisted of two parcels totaling 200 acres which would be used as prime cropland. The second contract was for 120 acres of cropland in need of erosion remediation and not eligible for participation in government agricultural programs in its current condition. The debtors claimed that there was an oral agreement to lease the purchased properties back to the debtors for $175 per acre per year after the sale, as well as a right of first refusal if the buyer were to sell the properties, so that the debtors could continue to farm the land. Both contracts were silent as to the amount of rent to be paid and whether the right of first refusal applied to all three of the properties. The debtors proposed to sell the prime cropland for $4,000 per acre, based on a recent sale of another property in the county.

The creditors had mortgage liens on the properties and vigorously opposed the sale of the three properties. The creditors argued that the debtors were undervaluing all three tracts of land. Specifically, the creditors argued that the debtors erred in relying on a past sale in the county to arrive at $4,000 per acre. The creditor argued that the recent sale involved land that included a significant portion of pasture and wasteland, and that the debtors’ land was compromised of high-quality tillable land and no waste. As a result, the creditors argued that the sale price of the prime cropland should be $5,000 per acre.

The bankruptcy court agreed with the creditors and held that the debtors had inadequately priced the prime cropland. However, the bankruptcy court held that the second contract did not undervalue the less desirable cropland. The bankruptcy court noted that although the debtors’ sale did not require satisfaction of outstanding liens, there were significant concerns about some aspects of the proposed sale. First, the debtors’ ability to resume farming would be dependent upon the lease of the three tracts after the sale for rent that would be less than the debtor’s present debt service. Additionally, the debtors’ right to lease would only last as long as the proposed buyer owned the properties. Consequently, the bankruptcy court denied the debtors’ proposed sale primarily due to an inadequate sale price for the prime cropland. 

Observation:  Clearly, not having the prime cropland exposed to the market through a listing was a problem.  If that had been done, there likely would have been testimony (and other evidence) to support the price in addition to the debtor's testimony.  Having an appraiser testify could have helped the debtor.

Public Trust Doctrine Inapplicable to Natural Resources Allegedly Harmed by “Climate Change” 

Chernaik v. Brown, 367 Or. 143 (2020)

I wrote recently about attempts to expand the “public trust” doctrine and the impact such an expansion would have on agricultural production and land ownership.  You can read that article here:  https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/10/the-public-trust-doctrine-a-camels-nose-under-agricultures-tent.html.  In that article I discussed a Nevada Supreme Court opinion in which the Court refused to expand the doctrine.  Now, the Oregon Supreme Court has likewise refused to expand the doctrine. 

In the Oregon case, the plaintiffs claimed that the public trust doctrine required the State of Oregon to protect various natural resources in the state from harm due to greenhouse gas emissions, “climate change,” and ocean acidification. The public trust doctrine has historically only applied to submerged and submersible lands underlying navigable waters as well as the navigable waters. The trial court rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments. On appeal the state Supreme Court affirmed, rejecting the test for expanding the doctrine the plaintiffs proposed. Under that test, the doctrine would extend to any resource that is not easily held or improved and is of great value to the public. The state Supreme Court held that the plaintiffs’ test was too broad to be adopted. The Supreme Court remanded the case to the lower court. 

Zoning Ordinance Bars Keeping of Farm Animals 

Maffeo v. Winder Borough Zoning Hearing Board, 220 A.3d 1210 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2019)

The plaintiff owned a two-acre property in an area zoned residential. She kept approximately 50 animals on the property including goats, donkeys, and chickens. The city manager’s office had received numerous noise and odor complaints regarding the animals. The city sent the plaintiff a cease and desist letter giving the plaintiff 20 days to remove the animals. A city ordinance prohibited any person from keeping goats, donkeys, and other farm animals on residentially zoned property. The plaintiff appealed the cease and desist letter to the defendant city, the zoning hearing board. The plaintiff admitted that most of her property was located within a residentially zoned district but argued that a small corner of the property was located in a conservation district allowing for agricultural uses. The zoning board denied the plaintiff’s argument and concluded that although part of the property was zoned for agricultural use, it was undisputed that the plaintiff’s animals were within 200 feet of a residential lot which violated a separate city ordinance.

The trial court affirmed. On appeal, the plaintiff argued the trial court failed to consider evidence that she properly cared for her animals and that her property had not been surveyed. Specifically, the plaintiff argued a letter from the county humane society should have been considered to show she properly cared for her animals. The appellate court held that although the letter was not in the record, both the zoning board and trial court had expressly considered the letter in making their respective rulings. The appellate court noted that the care for the animals was not at issue, but rather whether zoning rules and ordinance permitted the plaintiff to keep farm animals on her property. The appellate court also determined that a zoning survey of the property had been done recently, which showed that most of the property was within a residential district and only a small portion was zoned as conservation. The plaintiff failed to present any evidence to rebut the survey before the hearing board or trial court, therefore the appellate court held that the plaintiff was in violation of the city ordinance. Finally, the plaintiff argued the zoning board was unevenly enforcing its zoning ordinances because a neighbor had testified before the hearing board that he kept chickens on his property and a city officer had told him that doing so did not violate any city ordinance. The appellate court held that this evidence alone was insufficient to establish uneven enforcement without any other evidence presented. 

On-Farm Sales of Processed Beef Subject to Sales Tax 

Priv. Ltr. Rul. 8115 (Mo. Dept. of Rev., Sept. 25, 2020)

The taxpayer sought a ruling from the Missouri Department of Revenue (MDOR) concerning the sale of beef products from his farm. The taxpayer raises cattle, slaughters them, and then sends the beef out to be processed at a local processing plant. The taxpayer pays the processing plant for its services and then the taxpayer sells the resulting beef products to customers at his farm. The taxpayer’s question was whether the beef sales were subject to sales tax. The MDOR issued a ruling stating that the sales are subject to sales tax at the food tax rate of 1 percent. The MDOR noted that 7 U.S.C. §2012, defines “food” as "any food or food product for home consumption." The taxpayer was selling raw beef at retail for home consumption. 

Payments Received By CPA Were Wages and Not S.E. Income; Deductions Disallowed

Thoma v. Comr., T.C. Memo. 2020-67

The petitioner acquired a partial interest in an accounting firm and ultimately became the sole owner of the firm that he operated as a sole proprietorship. The petitioner later went into business with another accountant pursuant to two contracts. One contract purported to be a partnership agreement and the second contract “restated” the first contract. The plaintiff provided accounting services to the firm and also brought his own clients to the firm. He later sold his interest back to the business under an agreement stating that he didn’t retain any management or supervisory role in the business.

During the year of sale of his interest and the following year (2010 and 2011), the business made bi-weekly payments to the petitioner for accounting services. The business issued Schedules K-1 reporting the payments as guaranteed payments to a limited partner with no withholding. The petitioner did not receive any paid sick leave or paid vacation time. The business had a professional liability policy that included the petitioner. The petitioner received a letter from the Department of Justice requesting the records of a client and the petitioner responded to the letter without informing the business. That ultimately resulted in the business locking the petitioner out, barring him from the computer network and placing him on administrative leave and his relationship with the business being terminated.

The petitioner reported his income for 2010 and 2011 as self-employment income allowing him to claim deductions for deposits into his SIMPLE IRA and for health insurance premiums that he paid as well as for one-half of his self-employment tax liability. The IRS disallowed the deductions, recharacterizing the income as wages. That resulted in his expenses being treated as unreimbursed employee expenses deductible only as miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the two-percent of adjusted gross income floor. Likewise, the petitioner’s health insurance deductions were only deductible as a medical expense deduction and the SIMPLE IRA deduction was disallowed. The IRS also imposed accuracy-related penalties.

The Tax Court agreed with the IRS position, concluding that the petitioner and the other accountant did not intend to carry on a business together or share profit and loss. Thus, they never formed a partnership. The 2010 agreement, the Tax Court determined resulted in an at-will employment arrangement with the petitioner having no management authority. The issuance of the Schedules K-1 were not controlling, but merely a factor in determining the existence of a partnership. The Tax Court also held that the petitioner was not an independent contractor because of the longstanding relationship of the petitioner and the other accountant. The accountant/firm retained the right to fire the petitioner and provided him with professional liability insurance, office space and tax prep software. The firm also retained control over the details of his work and he did not have any opportunity for profit or loss independent of the business. The IRS-imposed penalties were upheld. 

Conclusion

The courts again illustrate the numerous legal and tax issues that are relevant for farmers, ranchers rural landowners and taxpayers in general.  It’s always a good idea to have competent legal and tax counsel within arm’s reach.

November 6, 2020 in Bankruptcy, Income Tax, Real Property, Regulatory Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 26, 2020

Roadkill – It’s What’s For Dinner (Reprise)

Overview

I don’t normally bring back a prior blog article for readers, but the articles are stacking up (over 500) and newer readers are frequently joining.  So, some may not know that a prior post exists on a topic they are searching for information about.  Thus, I bring back a topic I wrote about over two years ago for re-posting today (with some updates).

It’s the time of year again when I field questions about whether it is permissible to pick up roadkill.  Often, the question is in relation to big game such as deer or bear or moose.  But, other times the question may involve various types of furbearing animals such as coyotes, raccoons or badgers.  I don’t get too many roadkill questions involving small game.  That’s probably because when small game is killed on the road, it is either not wanted or the party hitting it simply assumes that there is no question that it can be possessed.

There are many collisions involving wildlife and automobiles every year.  One estimate by a major insurance company shows that one out of every 169 motorists in the U.S. hit a deer during 2018.  Between mid-2018 and mid-2019, insurance industry data show that there were almost two million animal insurance claims filed in the United States.  To put it in perspective, that’s almost ten times the number of people that have died with the virus listed as one of their co-morbidities. Perhaps state governors professing deep concern about the number of virus infections should be severely restricting speed limits or mandating no non-essential night-time travel. 

If a wild animal is hit by a vehicle, the meat from the animal is the same as that from animal meat obtained by hunting – assuming that the animal is not diseased.  So, in that instance, harvesting roadkill is a way to get free food – either for personal consumption or to donate to charity.  

What are the rules and regulations governing roadkill?  That’s the topic of today’s post.

State Rules

Presently, the top four states experiencing the highest rate of animal (wildlife)/car with collisions are West Virginia, Montana, Pennsylvania and South Dakota.  Especially in those states, it’s helpful to know the rules that apply when an animal or fowl is struck.

Many states have rules on the books concerning roadkill.  Often, the approach is for the state statutes and the regulatory body (often the state Department of Game and Fish (or something comparable)) to distinguish between "big game," "furbearing animals" and "small game."  This appears to be the approach of Kansas and a few other states.  Often a salvage tag (e.g., “permit”) is needed to pick up big game and turkey roadkill.  This is the approach utilized in Iowa and some other states.  If a salvage tag is possessed, a hunting license is not required.  For furbearing animals such as opossums and coyotes that are roadkill, the typical state approach is that these animals can only be possessed during the furbearing season with a valid fur harvester license.  As for small game, the typical state approach is that these roadkill animals can be possessed with a valid hunting license in-season.  But variations exist from state-to-state. 

An approach of several states is to allow the collection of roadkill with a valid permit.  That appears to be the approach in Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, New Hampshire, North Dakota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.  Other states require the party hitting wildlife and collecting the roadkill to report the incident and collection within 24 hours.  Other states may limit roadkill harvesting to licensed fur dealers.  In these states (and some others), the general public doesn’t have a right to collect roadkill.  In Texas, roadkill-eating is not allowed (although a legislative attempt to remove the ban was attempted in 2014).  South Dakota has legislatively attempted to make roadkill public property.  Wyoming requires a tag be received from the game warden for possessing big game roadkill.  Oregon allows drivers to get permits to recover, possess, use or transport roadkill. 

Other states (such as Alabama) may limit roadkill harvesting to non-protected animals and game animals, and then only during open season.  The Alaska approach is to only allow roadkill to be distributed via volunteer organizations.  A special rule for black bear roadkill exists in Georgia.  Illinois, in certain situations requires licenses and a habitat stamp.  Massachusetts requires that roadkill be submitted for state inspection, and New Jersey limits salvaging roadkill to deer for persons with a proper permit. 

In all states, federally-protected species cannot be possessed.  If a question exists about the protected status of roadkill, the safest approach is to leave it alone.  Criminal penalties can apply for mere possession of federally protected animals and birds.  Similarly, if a vehicle does significant enough damage to wildlife that the animal’s carcass cannot be properly identified to determine if the season is open for that particular animal (in those states that tie roadkill possession to doing so in-season) the recommended conduct is to not possess the roadkill.   

In the states that have considered roadkill legislation in recent years, proponents often claim that allowing licensed hunters to take (subject to legal limits) a fur-bearing animal from the roadside would be a cost-saving measure for the state.  The logic is that fewer state employees would be required to clean-up dead animal carcasses.  Opponents of roadkill bills tend to focus their arguments on safety-related concerns – that having persons stopped alongside the roadway to collect dead animals would constitute a safety hazard for other drivers.  That’s an interesting argument inasmuch as those making this claim would also appear to be asserting that a dead animal on a roadway at night is not a safety hazard.  Others simply appear to argue that collecting roadkill for human consumption is disgusting. 

Conclusion

There is significant variation among state approaches with respect to possession of roadkill.  That means that for persons interested in picking up roadkill, researching applicable state law and governing regulations in advance would be a good idea.  For roadkill that is gleaned from a roadway that is used for human consumption, care should be taken in preparation and cooking.  The present younger generation typically doesn’t have much experience dining on raccoon (they tend to be greasy), opossum shanks and gravy, as well as squirrel.  But, prepared properly, some people view them as a delicacy. 

To date, the USDA hasn’t issued guidelines on the proper preparation of roadkill or where roadkill fits in its food pyramid (that was revised in recent years).  That’s sounds like a good project for some USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety to occupy their time with.  Thanksgiving is just around the corner.

Be careful out there.

October 26, 2020 in Civil Liabilities, Regulatory Law | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, October 23, 2020

Eminent Domain and “Seriously Misleading” Financing Statements

Overview

Farmers and ranchers encounter numerous legal issues, some more often than others.  Some involve relationships with people that have gone awry, while others are a function of the economic situation surrounding the operation.  Still others involve technical contract issues involving the sale or transfer of agricultural commodities.  Many involve farmland in one fashion or another. 

In today’s article, I examine a couple of recent cases illustrating two legal issues that farmers and ranchers encounter – eminent domain and financing arrangements.  These are the topic of today’s post.

Eminent Domain

The power to “take” private property for public use (or for a public purpose) without the owner's consent is an inherent power of the federal and state government. However, the United States Constitution limits the government's eminent domain power by requiring federal and state governments to pay for what is “taken.” The “takings” clause of the Fifth Amendment has been held to apply to the states since 1897. Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Co., v. Chicago, 166 U.S. 226 (1897). 

The issue of what constitutes “just compensation” is often the thorny issue when a “taking” has occurred.  Often, the government will “low-ball” a landowner upon the exercise of its eminent domain power.  But, just compensation is to be tied to fair market value of the property taken.  The trick is how fair market value is to be determined.  That precise issue came up in a recent Nebraska case.

Recent case. In Russell v. Franklin County, 27 Neb. Ct. App. 684, 934 N.W.2d 517 (2019), the plaintiffs were landowners whose property consisted of 164 acres that was primarily cropland and pastureland. The property has been in the plaintiffs’ family for many years and includes cropland and pastureland. There was no residence on the property, and the plaintiffs used it for birdwatching, camping, hunting for game and mushrooms, and other recreational purposes. The plaintiffs gave the defendant county permission to cut down trees on the plaintiffs’ property in order to improve visibility for drivers on an adjacent county road. However, the defendant’s employees proceeded to cut down trees from an area not authorized for removal. In total, the defendant cut down 67 trees, affecting 1.67 acres of the plaintiffs’ land.

The plaintiffs filed an inverse condemnation action under Neb. Rev. Stat. §76-705, et seq. against the defendant, alleging an unlawful taking of their property for public use without just compensation. The plaintiffs claimed that the damages should be calculated by determining the replacement cost of the trees and soil from uprooted trees.  In other words, the “just compensation” should be what it would cost to put the property back to its status before the trees outside the permitted area were removed.  To that end, the plaintiffs relied upon an arborist, a salesperson from a nursery and garden center, and a representative from an excavating company to quantify their damages. Together, the experts calculated the cost to return the property to its prior condition to be $150,716.  Conversely, the defendant argued that the damages should be calculated by determining the difference in fair market value of the plaintiffs’ property before and after the trees had been cut down, which its expert said was $200.

The trial court agreed with the defendant and held that the appropriate measure of damages was the difference in the fair market value of the land. The trial court noted that the plaintiffs had argued their case under the state’s eminent domain statutes but were seeking damages based on a tort cause of action. On appeal, the plaintiffs’ argued the trial court applied the wrong measure of damages. The plaintiffs maintained their argument that the proper method for determining damages was to calculate the cost of restoring the property to its preexisting condition. The appellate court held that the correct measure for damages was in fact the difference in the fair market value of the land before and after the trees were cut down. The appellate court noted that Nebraska courts have consistently held that damages in eminent domain cases are measured based on market value of the property. Further, the appellate court pointed out that the state Supreme Court had previously held that vegetation is not valued separately and should only be considered in how its presence affects the fair market value of the land. Finally, the appellate court noted that the plaintiffs’ argument for calculating damages rested on cases that stemmed from tort actions. Because the plaintiffs had argued their case as one under the eminent domain statutes, they could not seek damages under an unlawful destruction of trees or negligence action. 

On further review, the Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed.  Russell v. Franklin County, 306 Neb. 546, 946 N.W.2d 648 (2020)

Financing Statement and Debtor’s Name

Occasionally, a lender loans money on an unsecured basis with the lender's security based solely on the borrower's reputation and promise to repay.  More likely, however, a lender will require collateral to make sure the borrower repays the loan. Usually, the lender requires the borrower to sign a written agreement (security agreement) giving the lender legal rights to the collateral (such as the borrower's crops, livestock or equipment) if the borrower fails to repay the loan. The situation where personal property or fixtures are used to secure payment of a debt or the performance of an obligation is called a secured transaction.  In this transaction, the lender receives a security interest in the debtor’s collateral.  If the debtor fails to repay the obligation, the creditor can have the collateral sold to repay the loan. 

Normally, a security interest in tangible property is perfected by filing a financing statement or by filing the security agreement as a financing statement. Indeed, filing a financing statement usually is the only practical way to perfect when the debtor is a farmer or rancher.

Under UCC § 9-506, a financing statement is effective even if it has minor errors or omissions unless the errors or omissions make the financing statement seriously misleading. A financing statement containing an incorrect debtor’s name is not seriously misleading if a search of the records of the filing office under the debtor’s correct legal name, using the filing office’s standard search logic, if any, discloses the financing statement filed under the incorrect name. However, some states have statutes or regulations defining the search logic to be used and may require that the debtor’s name be listed precisely in accordance with that logic.  A recent Minnesota bankruptcy case illustrates this point.

Recent case.  In a recent bankruptcy case from Minnesota, In re Rancher’s Legacy Meat Co., 616 B.R. 532 (Bankr. D. Minn. 2020), the debtor was a meat packing and processing company that was created by two people (one of which was a creditor) operating under the name of Unger Meat Company (UMC). The creditor leased a building to the debtor that was to be used as a processing plant. The creditor also provided startup funds through two promissory notes. The parties entered into a security agreement that granted the creditor a security interest in all of the debtor’s equipment, inventory, and accounts receivable.

The creditor perfected the security agreement by filing a financing statement with the state. UMC lost money and the creditor entered into an option agreement with a holding company to purchase UMC. Upon finalization of the sale, the holding company subsequently purchased the creditor’s shares in UMC and changed the name of the company to Rancher’s Legacy Meat Company. Fourteen months after the name change, the creditor filed a continuation statement listing the company’s name as UMC. Three years later, the creditor filed an amended continuation statement changing the debtor’s name to Rancher’s Legacy. The creditor began seeking collection on its notes and a few months later the debtor filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The debtor argued that the appropriate procedure to re-perfect the creditor’s security interest was to file a new financing statement upon the debtor’s name change. The creditor claimed that the filings appropriately re-perfected the security interest, entitling the creditor to adequate protection payments. The bankruptcy court looked to local (Minnesota) law, to construe the status of the creditor’s lien. Under Minnesota law, a financing statement becomes seriously misleading and ineffective when it fails to provide the debtor’s correct name. Additionally, when the financing statement is ineffective because of seriously misleading information, an amendment must be made within four months to perfect a security interest.

The bankruptcy court held that the creditor’s security interest lapsed when four months had passed after the creditor’s financing statement became seriously misleading. Further, the bankruptcy court held that the creditor had the ability to re-perfect the security interest by filing a new financing statement. Although the security interest had lapsed, the language of the parties’ security agreement provided the creditor with the opportunity to file a second financing statement. The creditor argued that the multiple filings were sufficient to giver proper notice to any other creditors under the UCC. The bankruptcy court disagreed and held that multiple filings can occasionally give proper notice, but not when the notice had become seriously misleading.

The bankruptcy court held that the validity of the financing statement depended primarily on its ability to give notice of the security interest to other creditors. The purpose of the UCC’s notice system, the bankruptcy court noted, is to provide public notice of a secured interest without requiring parties to piece together several documents. Further, the bankruptcy court noted that the creditor’s argument for multiple filings failed because the original financing statement had lapsed. The creditor’s continuation statements were merely amendments to the original financing statement. However, the original financing statement had lapsed four months after it became seriously misleading. The bankruptcy court held that the continuation statements could not revive the financing statement once it had lapsed. Lastly, the creditor argued that the subsequent filings of the continuation statements should have been enough to re-perfect his security interest.

The bankruptcy court held that even when the creditor’s three filings were read in conjunction, they were ineffective to re-perfect his security interest. The bankruptcy court further pointed out that the UCC specifically provides that continuation statements cannot substitute for financing statements. As a result, the bankruptcy court declared that the creditor became an unsecured creditor at the time the security interests became unperfected. Because the creditor failed to re-perfect the security interest before the debtor filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the debtor was not required to provide the creditor with adequate protection payments. 

Conclusion

Eminent domain and getting a debtor’s name correct on a financing statement – two issues that farmers and ranchers frequently encounter.  Also, two issues that illustrate how farmers and ranchers can become entangled in legal matters so easily. 

October 23, 2020 in Environmental Law, Regulatory Law, Secured Transactions | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Public Trust Doctrine – A Camel’s Nose Under Agriculture’s Tent?

Overview

Centuries ago, the seas were viewed as the common property of everyone - they weren’t subject to private use and ownership.  Instead, they were held in what was known as the “public trust.”  This concept was later adopted in English law, the Magna Carta, and became part of the common (non-statutory) law of individual states in the United States after the Revolution.  Over the years, this “public trust doctrine” has been primarily applied to access to the seashore and intertidal waters, although recently some courts have expanded its reach beyond its historical application.

But, any judicial expansion of the public trust doctrine results in curtailing vested property rights.  That’s a very important concern for agriculture because of agriculture’s necessary use of natural resources such as land, air, water, minerals and the like.  Restricting or eliminating property rights materially impacts agricultural operations in a negative manner.  It also creates an economic disincentive to use property in an economically (and socially) efficient manner.

The impact of an expanded public use doctrine on agriculture – it’s the topic of today’s post.

In General

The U.S. Supreme Court’s first application of the public trust doctrine was in 1842 in Martin v. Lessee of Waddell, 41 U.S.367 (1842). In the case, the issue was who had the right to submerged land and oyster harvesting off the coast of New Jersey.  The Court, largely based on the language in the charter granted by the King to a Duke to establish a colony and for policy and economic reasons, determined that the land area in issue belonged to the state of New Jersey for the benefit of the people of the state.  The Court dealt with the issue again in 1892 in a case involving a railroad that had been granted a large amount of the Chicago harbor. Illinois Central Railroad Company v. Illinois, 146 U.S. 387 (1892).  The Court determined that the government cannot alienate (interfere with) the public’s right to access land under waters that are navigable in fact except for situations where the land involved wouldn’t interfere with the public’s ability to access the water or impair navigation. 

As generally applied in the United States (although there are differences among the states), an oceanfront property owner can exclude the public below the mean high tide (water) line.  See e.g., Gunderson v. State, 90 N.E. 3d 1171 (Ind. 2018)That’s the line of intersection of the land with the water's surface at the maximum height reached by a rising tide (e.g., high water mark).  Basically, it’s the debris line or the line where you would find fine shells.  However, traceable to the mid-1600s, Massachusetts and Maine recognize private property rights to the mean low tide line even though they do allow the public to have access to the shore between the low and high tide lines for "fishing, fowling and navigation.”  In addition, in Maine, the public can cross private shoreline property for scuba diving purposes.  McGarvey v. Whittredge, 28 A.3d 620 (Me. 2011). 

Other applications of the public trust doctrine involve the preservation of oil resources, fish stocks and crustacean beds.  Also, many lakes and navigable streams are maintained via the public trust doctrine for purposes of drinking water and recreation.

Expanding the Doctrine?

As noted above, the public trust doctrine is an ancient concept that guarantees certain rights to the public and causes other rights to be vested in private owners.  Indeed, in the United States, one of the fundamental Constitutional rights denoted in the Bill of Rights is that of the ownership of private property.  Fifth Amendment, U.S. Constitution.  As a fundamental Constitutional right, any infringement on the right is subject to “strict scrutiny” by a court.  Of course, the government (state and federal) retains the right to “take” private property for a public use, but only upon the payment of “just compensation.”  But, any expansion of the doctrine does an “end-run” around the claim that the government has committed a taking that requires compensation – the theory being that the public rights pre-existed and private property rights are automatically subject to them.  An expansion would bring non-justiciable political questions into the courts.  This technique has been tried with attempts to get the courts to decide allegations of harm and restrict usage of private property based on “global warming.”  Largely, the courts have refused citing lack of standing, congressional delegation to administrative agencies and that such claims are non-justiciable political questions.  See, e.g., American Electric Power Company v. Connecticut, 564 U.S. 410 (2011)

The notion that vested (e.g., settled, fixed, inalienable) rights can be usurped by an expanded application of the public trust doctrine makes it easier for regulation of property rights to occur without any concern that a non-physical taking of the property has occurred  that would require the private property owner to be compensated. That’s because the private property taken, the theory is, was a right that the owner never had to begin with.  In turn, an expanded public trust doctrine would require state (and, perhaps, federal) governments to take action to preserve public rights.  If they failed to do so, the legal system would be used to force action.  The courts, then, become a sort of “super legislature” via the public trust doctrine - a “court-packing” technique that is off the radar and out of public view.

How could an expanded public trust doctrine apply?  For farmers and ranchers, it could make a material detrimental impact on the farming operation.  For instance, many endangered species have habitat on privately owned land.  If wildlife and their habitat are deemed to be covered by the doctrine, farming and ranching practices could be effectively curtailed.  What about vested water rights?  A farming or ranching operation that has a vested water right to use water from a watercourse for crop irrigation or livestock watering purposes could find itself having those rights limited or eliminated if, under the public trust doctrine, a certain amount of water needed to be retained in the stream for a species of fish. 

One might argue that the government already has the ability to place those restrictions on farming operations, and that argument would be correct.  But, such restrictions exist via the legislative and regulatory process and are subject to constitutional due process, equal protection and just compensation protections.  Conversely, land-use restrictions via the public trust doctrine bypass those constitutional protections.  No compensation would need to be paid, because there was no governmental taking – a water right, for example, could be deemed to be subject to the “public trust” and enforced without the government paying for taking the right.  That’s a much different outcome than the government imposing regulations on property uses that trigger compensation for an unconstitutional regulatory taking.  In essence the government, via the doctrine, acquires an easement for the protection of certain designated natural resources (such as wildlife and wildlife habitat) that are deemed to be in the public interest.  Instead of elected politicians making these decisions and being accountable to voters, the courts are the enforcers. 

Also, an expansion of the public trust doctrine, from an economic standpoint, would have the unintended consequence of diminishing the incentive of landowners to invest in and improve the natural resource at issue. Private property has value because of the ability to exclude others from use and ownership.  A fundamental principle of economics is that the ability to exclude others from use and ownership increases the owner’s incentive to use the resource wisely.  This was, indeed, borne out in Bitterroot River Protective Association v. Bitterroot Conservation District, 346 Mont. 507 (2008).    

Recent Case

Mineral County v. Lyon County, No. 75917, 2020 Nev. LEXIS 56 (Nev. Sup. Ct. Sept. 17, 2020), involved the state of Nevada’s water law system for allocating water rights and an attempt to take those rights without compensation via an expansion of the public use doctrine.  The state of Nevada appropriates water to users via the prior appropriation system – a “first-in-time, first-in-right” system.  Over 100 years ago, litigation over the Walker River Basin began between competing water users in the Walker River Basin.  The Basin covers approximately 4,000 square miles, beginning in the Sierra Nevada mountain range and ending in a lake in Nevada.  In 1936, a federal court issued a decree adjudicating water rights of various claimants to water in the basin via the prior appropriation doctrine. 

In 1987, an Indian Tribe intervened in the ongoing litigation to establish procedures to change the allocations of water rights subject to the decree.  Since that time, the state reviews all changes to applications under the decree.  In 1994, the plaintiff sought to modify the decree to ensure minimum stream flows into the lake under the “doctrine of maintenance of the public trust.”  The federal district (trial) court granted the plaintiff’s motion to intervene in 2013.  In 2015, the trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s amended complaint in intervention on the basis that the plaintiff lacked standing; that the public trust doctrine could only apply prospectively to bar granting appropriative rights; any retroactive application of the doctrine could constitute a taking requiring compensation; that the court lacked the authority to effectuate a taking; and that the lake was not part of the basin. 

On appeal, the federal appellate court determined that the plaintiff had standing and that the lake was part of the basin.  The appellate court also held that whether the plaintiff could seek minimum flows depended on whether the public trust doctrine allowed the reallocation of rights that had been previously settled under the prior appropriation doctrine.  Thus, the appellate court certified two questions to the Nevada Supreme Court:  1) whether the public trust doctrine allowed such reallocation of rights; and 2) if so, whether doing so amounted to a “taking” of private property requiring “just compensation” under the Constitution. 

The state Supreme Court held that that public trust doctrine had already been implemented via the state’s prior appropriation system for allocating water rights and that the state’s statutory water laws is consistent with the public trust doctrine by requiring the state to consider the public interest when making allocating and administering water rights.  The state Supreme Court also determined that the legislature had expressly prohibited the reallocation of water rights that have not otherwise been abandoned or forfeited in accordance with state water law. 

The state Supreme Court limited the scope of its ruling to private water use of surface streams, lakes and groundwater such as uses for crops and livestock. The plaintiff has indicated that it will ask the federal appellate court for a determination of whether the public trust doctrine could be used to mandate water management methods.  If the court would rule that it does, the result would be an unfortunate disincentive to use water resources in an economically efficient manner (an application of the “tragedy of the commons”).  It would also provide a current example (in a negative way) of the application of the Coase Theorem (well-defined property rights overcome the problem of externalities).  See Coase, “The Problem of Social Cost,” Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 3, October 1960. 

Conclusion

Clearly, the state and federal governments can regulate natural resources.  The power to do so is vested in state legislatures and the Congress.  As such, the power is limited by Constitutional protections and by the voting public.  But, an expansion of the public trust doctrine would void those constraints on a theory that a property right that doesn’t exist cannot be taken.  The courts would become a “super legislature” gaining the authority to make public policy decisions.  That would further blur the distinction between legislative bodies and the judiciary and the fundamental legal principle of the separation of powers. 

An expanded public trust doctrine is a big “camel’s nose under the tent” for agriculture.  Farmers and ranchers beware.

October 20, 2020 in Environmental Law, Regulatory Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 12, 2020

Principles of Agricultural Law

PrinciplesForBlog2020Fall-cropped

Overview

The fields of agricultural law and agricultural taxation are dynamic.  Law and tax impacts the daily life of a farmer, rancher, agribusiness and rural landowner practically on a daily basis.  Whether that is good or bad is not really the question.  The point is that it’s the reality.  Lack of familiarity with the basic fundamental and applicable rules and principles can turn out to be very costly.  As a result of these numerous intersections, and the fact that the rules applicable to those engaged in farming are often different from non-farmers, I started out just over 25 years ago to develop a textbook that addressed the major issues that a farmer or rancher and their legal and tax counsel should be aware of.  After three years, the book was complete – Principles of Agricultural Law - and it’s been updated twice annually since that time. 

The 47th edition is now complete, and it’s the topic of today’s post – Principles of Agricultural Law.

Subject Areas

The text is designed to be useful to farmers and ranchers; agribusiness professionals; ag lenders; educational professionals; lawyers, CPAs and other tax preparers; undergraduate and law students; and those that simply want to learn more about legal and tax issues.  The text covers a wide range of topics.  Here’s just a sample of what is covered:

Ag contracts.  Farmers and ranchers engage in many contractual situations, including ag leases, to purchase contracts.  The potential perils of verbal contracts are numerous and can lead to unnecessary litigation. What if a commodity is sold under forward contract and a weather event destroys the crop before it is harvested?  When does the law require a contract to be in writing?  For purchases of goods, do any warranties apply?  What remedies are available upon breach? If a lawsuit needs to be brought to enforce a contract, how soon must it be filed? Is a liability release form necessary?  Is it valid?  What happens when a contract breach occurs?  What is the remedy? 

Ag financing.  Farmers and ranchers are often quite dependent on borrowing money for keeping their operations running.  What are the rules surrounding ag finance?  This is a big issue for lenders also?  What about dealing with an ag cooperative and the issue of liens?  What are the priority rules with respect to the various types of liens that a farmer might have to deal with? 

Ag bankruptcy.  A unique set of rules can apply to farmers that file bankruptcy.  Chapter 12 bankruptcy allows farmers to de-prioritize taxes.  That can be a huge benefit.  Knowing how best to utilize those rules is very beneficial.  That’s especially true with the unsettled issue of whether Payment Protection Program (PPP) funds can be utilized by a farmer in bankruptcy.  The courts are split on that issue.

Income tax.  Tax and tax planning permeate daily life.  Deferral contracts; depreciation; installment sales; like-kind exchanges; credits; losses; income averaging; reporting government payments; etc.  The list could go on and on.  Having a basic understanding of the rules and the opportunities available can add a lot to the bottom line of the farming or ranching operation as well as help minimize the bleeding when times are tough.

Real property.  Of course, land is typically the biggest asset in terms of value for a farming and ranching operation.  But, land ownership brings with it many potential legal issues.  Where is the property line?  How is a dispute over a boundary resolved?  Who is responsible for building and maintaining a fence?  What if there is an easement over part of the farm?  Does an abandoned rail line create an issue?  What if land is bought or sold under an installment contract?  How do the like-kind exchange rules work when farmland is traded? 

Estate planning.  While the federal estate tax is not a concern for most people and the vast majority of farming and ranching operations, when it does apply it’s a major issue that requires planning.  What are the rules governing property passage at death?  Should property be gifted during life?  What happens to property passage at death if there is no will?  How can family conflicts be minimized post-death?  Does the manner in which property is owned matter?  What are the applicable tax rules?  These are all important questions.

Business planning.  One of the biggest issues for many farm and ranch families is how to properly structure the business so that it can be passed on to subsequent generations and remain viable economically.  What’s the best entity choice?  What are the options?  Of course, tax planning is a critical part of the business transition process.

Cooperatives.  Many ag producers are patrons of cooperatives.  That relationship creates unique legal and tax issues.  Of course, the tax law enacted near the end of 2017 modified an existing deduction for patrons of ag cooperatives.  Those rules are very complex.  What are the responsibilities of cooperative board members? 

Civil liabilities.  The legal issues are enormous in this category.  Nuisance law; liability to trespassers and others on the property; rules governing conduct in a multitude of situations; liability for the spread of noxious weeds; liability for an employee’s on-the-job injuries; livestock trespass; and on and on the issues go.  Agritourism is a very big thing for some farmers, but does it increase liability potential?  Nuisance issues are also important in agriculture.  It’s useful to know how the courts handle these various situations.

Criminal liabilities.  This topic is not one that is often thought of, but the implications can be monstrous.  Often, for a farmer or rancher or rural landowner, the possibility of criminal allegations can arise upon (sometimes) inadvertent violation of environmental laws.  Even protecting livestock from predators can give rise to unexpected criminal liability.  Mail fraud can also arise with respect to the participation in federal farm programs.  The areas of life potentially impacted with criminal penalties are worth knowing, as well as knowing how to avoid tripping into them.

Water law.  Of course, water is essential to agricultural production.  Water issues vary across the country, but they tend to focus around being able to have rights to water in the time of shortage and moving the diversion point of water.  Also, water quality issues are important.  In essence, knowing whether a tract of land has a water right associated with it, how to acquire a water right, and the relative strength of that water rights are critical to understand.

Environmental law.  It seems that agricultural and the environment are constantly in the news.  The Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and other federal (and state) laws and regulations can have a big impact on a farming or ranching operation.  Just think of the issues with the USDA’s Swampbuster rules that have arisen over the past 30-plus years.  What constitutes a regulatory taking of property that requires the payment of compensation under the Constitution?  It’s good to know where the lines are drawn and how to stay out of (expensive) trouble.

Regulatory law.  Agriculture is a very heavily regulated industry.  Animals and plants, commodities and food products are all subject to a great deal of regulation at both the federal and state level.  Antitrust laws are also important to agriculture because of the highly concentrated markets that farmers buy inputs from and sell commodities into.  Where are the lines drawn?  How can an ag operation best position itself to negotiate the myriad of rules?   

Conclusion

It is always encouraging to me to see students, farmers and ranchers, agribusiness and tax professionals get interested in the subject matter and see the relevance of material to their personal and business lives. Agricultural law and taxation is reality.  It’s not merely academic.  The Principles text is one that can be very helpful to not only those engaged in agriculture, but also for those advising agricultural producers.  It’s also a great reference tool for Extension educators. It’s also a great investment for any farmer – and it’s updated twice annually to keep the reader on top of current developments that impact agriculture.

If you are interested in obtaining a copy, perhaps even as a Christmas gift, you can visit the link here:  http://washburnlaw.edu/practicalexperience/agriculturallaw/waltr/principlesofagriculturallaw/index.html.  Instructors that adopt the text for a course are entitled to a free copy.  The book is available in print and CD versions.  Also, for instructors, a complete set of Powerpoint slides is available via separate purchase.  Sample exams and work problems are also available.  You may also contact me directly to obtain a copy.

If you are interested in obtaining a copy, you can visit the link here:  http://washburnlaw.edu/practicalexperience/agriculturallaw/waltr/principlesofagriculturallaw/index.html.  You may also contact me directly. 

October 12, 2020 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, August 31, 2020

Right-To-Farm Law Headed to the SCOTUS?

Overview

Every state has enacted a right-to-farm (RTF) law that is designed to protect existing agricultural operations by giving farmers and ranchers who meet the legal requirements a defense in nuisance suits. It may not be only traditional row crop or livestock operations that are protected.  For example, the Washington statute also applies to “forest practices” which has been held to not be limited to logging activity, but include the growing of trees.  Alpental Community Club, Inc., v. Seattle Gymnastics Society, 86 P.3d 784 (Wash. Ct. App. 2004).   But, the RTF laws vary widely from state-to-state.  One such law, the Indiana version (Ind. Code §32-30-6-9), may be headed to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).  It’s not everyday that a request is made of the SCOTUS to hear an RTF law.  What’s going on?

The Indiana RTF law and the SCOTUS – it’s the topic of today’s post.

Right-To-Farm Laws

In general.  The basic thrust of a particular state's RTF law is that it is unfair for a person to move to an agricultural area knowing the conditions which might be present and then ask a court to declare a neighboring farm a nuisance.  Thus, the basic purpose of a right-to-farm law is to create a legal and economic climate in which farm operations can be continued.  RTF laws can be an important protection for agricultural operations.  But, to be protected, an agricultural operation must satisfy the law's requirements. One such common requirement is that a protected activity must be a farming activity.  For example, in Hood River County v. Mazzara, 89 P.3d 1195 (Or. Ct. App. 2004), the state statute that protected farms against nuisance actions was held to bar a lawsuit against a farmer for noise from barking dogs. The use of dogs to protect livestock was held to be farming practice.

Types.  Right-to-farm laws are of three basic types: (1) nuisance related; (2) restrictions on local regulations of agricultural operations; and (3) zoning related.  While these categories provide a method for identifying and discussing the major features of right-to-farm laws, any particular state's right-to-farm law may contain elements of each category.

The most common type of right-to-farm law is nuisance related.  This type of statute requires that an agricultural operation will be protected only if it has been in existence for a specified period of time (usually at least one year) before the change in the surrounding area that gives rise to a nuisance claim.  See, e.g., Vicwood Meridian Partnership, et al. v. Skagit Sand and Gravel, 98 P. 3d 1277 (Wash. Ct. App. 2004).  This type of statute essentially codifies the “coming to the nuisance defense,” but does not protect agricultural operations which were a nuisance from the beginning or which are negligently or improperly run.  For example, if any state or federal permits are required to properly conduct the agricultural operation, they must be acquired as a prerequisite for protection under the statute.

Subsequent changes and the Indiana RTF law.  While right-to-farm laws try to assure the continuation of farming operations, they generally do not protect subsequent changes in a farming operation that constitute a nuisance after local development occurs nearby. See, e.g., Davis, et al. v. Taylor, et al., 132 P.3d 783 (Wash. Ct. App. 2006); Trickett v. Ochs, 838 A.2d 66 (Vt. 2003); Flansburgh v. Coffey, 370 N.W.2d 127 (Neb. 1985)If a nuisance cannot be established, however, the Indiana RTF law has been construed to bar an action when the agricultural activity on land changes in nature.  For instance, in Dalzell, et al. v. Country View Family Farms, LLC, No. 1:09-cv-1567-WTL-MJD, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 130773 (S.D. Ind. Sept. 13, 2012), the land near the plaintiffs changed hands.  The prior owner had conducted a row-crop operation on the property.  The new owner continued to raise row crops, but then got approval for a 2800-head sow confinement facility.  The defendant claimed the state (IN) right-to-farm law as a defense and sought summary judgment.  The court held that state law only allows nuisance claims when “significant change” occurs and that transition from row crops to a 2,800-head hog confinement facility did not meet the test because both are agricultural uses.  The court noted that an exception existed if the plaintiffs could prove that the hog confinement operation was being operated in a negligent manner which causes a nuisance, but the plaintiffs failed to prove that the alleged negligence was the proximate cause of the claimed nuisance.  Thus, the exception did not apply and the defendant’s motion for summary judgment was granted.  The court’s decision was affirmed on appeal.  Dalzell, et al. v. Country View Family Farms, LLC, et al., 517 Fed. Appx. 518 (7th Cir. 2013).

In another Indiana case, Parker v. Obert’s Legacy Dairy, LLC, 988 N.E.2d 319 (Ind. Ct. App. 2013), the defendant had expanded an existing dairy operation from 100 cows to 760 cows by building a new milking parlor and free-stall barn on a tract adjacent to the farmstead where the plaintiff’s family had farmed since the early 1800s.  The plaintiff sued for nuisance and the defendant asserted the state (IN) right-to-farm statute as a defense.  The court determined that the statute barred the suit.  Importantly, the court determined that the expansion of the farm did not necessarily result in the loss of the statute’s protection.  For instance, the vastly expanded dairy remained covered under the same Confined Animal Feeding Operation permit as the original farm.  In addition, the conversion of a crop field to a dairy facility was protected by the statute because both uses simply involved different forms of agriculture.  The court also noted that the Indiana statute at issue protected one farmer from suit by another farmer for nuisance if the claim involved odor and loss of property value.  Not all state statutes apply to protect farmers from nuisance suits brought by other farmers.

The Himsel Litigation

A more recent case involving the Indiana RTF law is Himsel v. Himsel, 122 N.E.3d 935 (Ind. Ct. App. 2019)I have written previously about the Himsel case here: https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2019/05/coming-to-the-nuisance-by-staying-put-or-when-200-equals-8000.html  

The appellate court in Himsel, determined that the Indiana RTF law applied to protect the defendant because the change in the nature of the defendant’s hog operation from row crop farming to a large-scale confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) involving 8,000 hogs was “not a significant change” that would make the RTF law inapplicable.  In other words, 8,000 hogs in a confinement building raised by a contracting party that likely doesn’t make management decisions concerning the hogs, doesn’t report the associated contract income as farm income on Schedule F, and cannot pledge the hogs as loan collateral due to a lack of an ownership interest in the hogs, was somehow not significantly different from 200 hogs and 200 head of cattle raised by a farmer with associated crop ground who managed the diversified operation.  Just the sheer number of hogs alone stands out in stark contrast.  Also, unlike the Obert’s Legacy Dairy case where the expansion of the dairy farm did not require a new permit, the hog operation in Himsel required a change in the existing zoning of the tract.

The plaintiffs in Himsel, members of the same family as the defendants, were found to have essentially come to the nuisance because one of them chose to retire from farming and remain on the land that he had lived on for nearly 80 years, and the other didn’t move from the rural home they built in 1971.  An 8,000-head hog confinement operation and the presence of 3.9 million gallons of untreated hog manure was comparable to farming in this area in 1941.

The Himsel court also determined that a “taking” had not occurred because the plaintiff had not sold his home and moved away from the place where he grew up and lived all of his life, and the RTF law did not take the entire value of the plaintiff’s property away.  The appellate court, however, did not address the implications of whether its opinion essentially granted the CAFO an easement to produce odors across the plaintiffs’ property.

The appellate court declined to rehear the case (No. 18A-PL-645, 2019 Ind. App. LEXIS 314 (Ind. Ct. App. Jul. 12, 2019)), and the Indiana Supreme Court declined to review the appellate court’s decision by a single vote.  Himsel v. 4/9 Livestock, LLC, 143 N.E. 3d 950 (Ind. Sup. Ct. Feb. 20, 2020).    On July 17, 2020, a petition for certiorari was filed with the SCOTUS.

The Issue Before the SCOTUS – Unconstitutional Taking

The issue presented to the SCOUTUS is singular – whether the Indiana RTF law amounts to a taking of private property without compensation in violation of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment. Property rights are constitutionally protected under the Fifth Amendment and cannot be taken by governmental action without payment of just compensation.  The Fifth Amendment applies to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. What is involved in Himsel is not an outright taking of the plaintiff’s land, instead the claim is that the RTF law constitutes a regulatory taking via obnoxious odors and other environmental contamination.  I have written about regulatory takings here: https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2019/10/regulatory-takings-pursuing-a-remedy.html But, is there any precedence for a RTF law being held unconstitutional.  There is.

State court action.  In 1998, the Iowa Supreme Court invalidated an Iowa law designed to preserve agricultural land and provide farmers protection from nuisance lawsuits. Bormann v. Board of Supervisors in and for Kossuth County, 584 N.W.2d 309 (Iowa 1998).  The Iowa law allowed counties to designate agricultural areas of at least 300 contiguous acres.  Farming operations conducted within a designated area were not subject to nuisance lawsuits if they operated properly.  The court ruled that this immunity created a property right, an easement to create odors, over land adjacent to the agricultural area’s boundary.  As a result, the court ruled the Iowa law unconstitutional because the county did not pay the neighbors who would be required to endure the odors and the neighbors could not bring a nuisance action to limit or stop odor production.  The SCOTUS declined further review.  Girres v. Bormann, 525 U.S. 1172 (1999).

In 2004, the Iowa Supreme Court addressed the constitutionality of the Iowa RTF law. Gacke v. Pork XTRA, L.L.C, 684 N.W.2d 168 (Iowa 2004).  In Gacke, the defendant built a confinement hog facility 1,300 feet to the north of the plaintiffs’ farmstead which the plaintiffs had occupied since 1974.  In the summer of 2000, the plaintiffs filed a nuisance action against the defendant claiming damages for personal injury, emotional distress and a decrease in the value of their property, and seeking a permanent injunction, compensatory and punitive damages.  The defendant raised the Iowa right-to-farm statute as a defenseThe pertinent part of the statute provides:

“An animal feeding operation…shall not be found to be a…nuisance under this chapter or under principles of common law, and the animal feeding operation shall not be found to interfere with another person’s comfortable use and enjoyment of the person’s life or property under any other cause of action.”

Importantly, the statutory protection applies regardless of whether the animal feeding operation was established (or expanded) before or after the complaining party was present in the area.  However, the protection of the statute does not apply if the animal feeding operation is not in compliance with all applicable federal and state laws for operation of the facility, or the facility unreasonably and for substantial periods of time interferes with the plaintiff’s comfortable use and enjoyment of the plaintiff’s life or property, and failed to use generally accepted best management practices. 

The plaintiffs claimed that the statute was an unconstitutional taking of their private property without just compensation in violation of both the Federal and Iowa constitutions.  The trial court agreed, determining that the value of their property had been reduced by $50,000, and that the plaintiffs should be awarded $46,500 to compensate them for their past inconvenience, emotional distress and pain and suffering. However, the court refused to award any future special or punitive damages or injunctive relief. 

On appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court held the right-to-farm law unconstitutional, but only to the extent that it denied the plaintiffs compensation for the decreased value of their property.  In essence, the Court held that the statute gave the defendant an easement to produce odors over the plaintiffs’ property, for which compensation had to be paid. 

However, in 2004, the Idaho RTF law that granted immunity from nuisance lawsuits was determined not to amount to an unconstitutional taking of property. Moon v. North Idaho Farmers Association, 140 Idaho 536, 96 P.3d 637 (2004).  That same year, the Texas Court of Appeals reached the same conclusion concerning the Texas RTF law. Barrera v. Hondo Creek Cattle Co., 132 S.W.3d 544 (Tex. App. 2004).   In 2009, the Indiana Court of Appeals, contrary to the Iowa decision in Bormann, and consistent with Barrera, held that the right to maintain a nuisance contained in the Indiana RTF law did not create an easement. Lindsey v. DeGroot, et al., 898 N.E.2d 1251 (Ind. Ct. App. 2009). 

State legislation.  In Colorado and North Carolina, the state RTF laws bar nuisance suits against “farming” operations that undergo major changes to the structure of the operation.  Colo. Rev. Stat. §35-3.5-102; N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §106-701(a)(1).  Utah, Nebraska and Oklahoma have built-in statutory “safe-harbors” providing protection from nuisance suits for significant changes to existing farming operations.  Utah Code Ann. §4-44-102(2); Neb. Rev. Stat. §2-4403(2); Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 50 §1.1

Conclusion

RTF laws are a legitimate purpose of state government.  The idea of promoting animal agriculture and incentivizing multi-generational farming operations and the local communities they support via an RTF law can bear a reasonable relationship to that legitimate objective.   However,  property rights are a fundamental constitutional right.  Any law that impinges on such a right is subject to strict scrutiny.  Thus, an RTF law that grants immunity from nuisance suits when the farming operation changes materially such that it becomes, in essence, an easement to commit a nuisance impacting an existing adjacent/nearby property owner cannot withstand strict scrutiny.  However, that is only the case if the SCOTUS agrees to hear the Himsel case and decides accordingly.  If not, the “patchwork quilt” of state court opinions will continue. 

August 31, 2020 in Regulatory Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The Supreme Court’s DACA Opinion and the Impact on Agriculture

Overview

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Department of Homeland Security, et al. v. Regents of the University of California, et al., 140 S. Ct. 1891 (2020) where the Court denied the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) revocation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).  The Court’s decision is of prime importance to agriculture because the case involved the ability of a federal government agency to create rules that are applied with the force of law without following the notice and comment requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act.  Agricultural activities are often subjected to the rules developed by federal government agencies, making it critical that agency rules are subjected to public input before being finalized.

The Supreme Court’s DACA opinion and agriculture – it’s the topic of today’s post.

Background

The DHS started the DACA program by issuing an internal agency memorandum in 2012.  The DHS took this action after numerous bills in the Congress addressing the issue failed to pass over a number of years.  The DACA program allowed illegal aliens that were minors at the time they illegally entered the United States to apply for a renewable, two-year reprieve from deportation.  The DACA program also gave these illegal immigrants work authorizations and access to taxpayer-funded benefits such as Social Security and Medicare.  Current estimates are that between one million and two million DACA-protected illegal immigrants are eligible for benefits  In 2014, the DHS attempted to expand DACA to provide amnesty and taxpayer benefits for over four million illegal aliens, but the expansion was foreclosed by a federal courts in 2015 for providing benefits to illegal aliens without following the procedural requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act as a substantive rule and for violating the Immigration and Naturalization Act.  Texas v. United States, 809 F.3d 134 (5th Cir. 2015), aff’g., 86 F. Supp. 3d 591 (S.D. Tex. 2015)In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the lower court decisions.  United States v. Texas, 136 S. Ct. 2271 (2016).  Based on these court holdings and because DACA was structured similarly, the U.S. Attorney General issued an opinion that the DACA was also legally defective.  Accordingly, in June of 2017, the DHS announced via an internal agency memorandum that it would end the illegal program by no longer accepting new applications or approving renewals other than for those whose benefits would expire in the next six months.  Activist groups sued and the Supreme Court ultimately determined that the action of the DHS was improper for failing to provide sufficient policy reasons for ending DACA.  In other words, what was created with the stroke of a pen couldn’t be eliminated with a stroke of a pen. 

Administrative Procedure Act (APA)

The APA was enacted in 1946.  Pub. L. No. 79-404, 60 Stat. 237 (Jun. 11, 1946).  The APA sets forth the rules governing how federal administrative agencies are to go about developing regulations.  It also gives the federal courts oversight authority over all agency actions.  The APA has been referred to as the “Constitution” for administrative law in the United States.  A key aspect of the APA is that any substantive agency rule that will be applied against an individual or business with the force of law (e.g., affecting rights of the regulated) must be submitted for public notice and comment.  5 U.S.C. §553.  The lack of DACA being subjected to public notice and comment when it was created and the Court’s requirement that it couldn’t be removed in like fashion struck a chord with the most senior member of the Court.  Justice Thomas authored a biting dissent that directly addressed this issue.  He wrote, “Without grounding its position in either the APA or precedent, the majority declares that DHS was required to overlook DACA’s obvious legal deficiencies and provide additional policy reasons and justifications before restoring the rule of law. This holding is incorrect, and it will hamstring all future agency attempts to undo actions that exceed statutory authority.” Justice Alito joined Justice Thomas in dissent stating, “DACA presents a delicate political issue, but that is not our business. As Justice Thomas explains, DACA was unlawful from the start, and that alone is sufficient to justify its termination. But even if DACA were lawful, we would still have no basis for overturning its rescission. First, to the extent DACA represented a lawful exercise of prosecutorial discretion, its rescission represented an exercise of that same discretion, and it would therefore be unreviewable under the Administrative Procedure Act.  5 U.S.C. §701(a)(2)…. Second, to the extent we could review the rescission, it was not arbitrary and capricious.”  Justice Thomas went on to term the majority’s decision “mystifying.” 

Application to Agriculture

Farmers and ranchers often deal with the rules developed by federal (and state) administrative agencies.  Those agency rules often involve substantive rights and, as such, are subject to the notice and comment requirements of the APA.  Failure to follow the APA often results in the restriction (or outright elimination) of property rights without the necessary procedural protections the APA affords. It’s also important that when administrative agencies overstep their bounds, a change in agency leadership has the ability to swiftly rescind prior illegal actions – a point Justice Thomas made clear in his dissent. The importance of holding government agencies accountable to the requirements of the APA is illustrated below.

USDA.  The USDA has a history of being notoriously poor at complying with the APA.  Both the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) issue manuals and numerous amendments containing provisions that are applied against farmers with the force of law without subjecting the provisions to the APA. The National Food Security Act Manual (NFSAM), the key publication detailing the requirements for participating in federal farm programs, is presently in its fifth edition.  Many amendments have been made to the various editions, none of which have been subjected to the APA.

The history of Swampbuster is also illustrative.  The legislation creating Swampbuster was contained in the 1985 Farm Bill.  It made no mention of farmed wetlands.  An interim agency rule in March 1986 also did not mention the concept.  However, a final rule issued in September 1987 added farmed wetland, commenced conversions and minimal effect with no opportunity for farmers, ranchers and other landowners to comment. In the mid-1990s an interim final rule was issued under the APA and comments were solicited. The rule is still in effect. It was never made a final rule and it is still in interim status 20+ years later. It has even been amended a few times. In 1996 the Congress amended the law requiring that changes to all wetland conservation and highly erodible land provisions be adopted pursuant to public review and comment. In all practicality, however, the USDA merely solicits comments and makes no revisions after comments have been made. 

As for drain maintenance, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in Barthel v. United States Department of Agriculture, 181 F.3d 834 (8th Cir. 1999), held that a drainage device can be manipulated after December. 23, 1985, to the extent necessary to allow the best historic drainage of the affected land.  In other words, the landowner is entitled to the “wetland and farming regime” on the land irrespective of what manipulation occurs to the specific drainage device.  However, the NRCS did not respond to Barthel decision until 2015 with the issuance of state offsite methods that looked at historic photographs and supported mathematical modeling.

The Iowa Experience.  Wetland issues often interact with common farming and ranching activities.  Wetland rules come from two sources - the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  The wetland rules of the CWA have been developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE).  More specifically, the CWA rules are administered by the COE for the EPA. The EPA can veto COE decisions, but rarely does. That the EPA and COE comply with the APA is critical. 

For Iowa farmers, the need for government agencies to comply with the APA has been recently illustrated in several important ways. 

  • When evaluating wetland mitigation, the COE is required to consider wetland functions and societal values. For example, a nutrient removal wetland would normally be valued higher over its flooding of a channelized low value headwater stream that is only wet due to drainage from tile lines. But the COE does not administer the law in that manner.  Instead, the COE determines what mitigation is needed to offset lost stream functions. Then it decides if that mitigation satisfies societal values in its permit decision. This COE policy has been developed outside of the APA and adds cost to nutrient removal wetlands, eliminates some, and protects lower-valued common headwater streams. The public is provided no input into the process (as it would via the APA process) as to whether the flooding of headwater streams without mitigation of lost stream channel functions would be an acceptable loss in favor of the creation of highly-valued nutrient removal wetlands.
  • The COE and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) worked together to create an Iowa Stream Mitigation Method without observing either the state or federal APA. The COE simply used, without any formal rulemaking, the Missouri stream mitigation method (a rather strict method) in Iowa for determining mitigation needs and permits. The Iowa Department of Transportation asked the IDNR for an in-lieu fee mitigation option for stream mitigation in road projects. Ultimately, the COE adopted the IDNR’s stream mitigation method without following the Iowa APA, published it as its own, solicited comments and adopted the rule.
  • In 2017 the NRCS pursued a consistent state off-site method (SOSM) for the prairie pothole states of ND, SD, MN and IA. On June 22, 2017 the SOSM was published in the federal register and comments solicited. Iowa and MN received no comments. The SOSM endorsed the use of a water balance software called SPAW. It had been In the NRCS wetland hydrology tools manual since 1997. In late 2017, the Midwest Regional Conservationist directed all 4 pothole states to install the 2017 SOSM in their field office technical guides and to begin using them. However, in December 2018 the Iowa NRCS changed the SOSM to discourage the use of SPAW and to return to aerial photographs. This change was not subjected to public review or comment.
  • Presently, the NRCS is planning to triple the setback for new tile from a farmed wetland in soils that are classified as possible discharge soils. These soils are common. A procedure used to identify such soils was expected to be announced and subjected to public comment and review.  Instead, Iowa moved ahead in tripling the setback without public rulemaking. 

The IRS.  With respect to payments received under Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the historic position of the IRS had been that, for a retired taxpayer who is not materially participating in the farm operations, payments received under the CRP would not be considered net income from self-employment. Priv. Ltr. Rul. 8822064 (Mar. 7, 1988).  Likewise, the IRS position has been that where the farm operator or owner is materially participating in the farm operation, CRP payments constitute receipts from farm operations includible in net earnings from self- employment.  Letter from Peter K. Scott, Associate Chief Counsel, Technical, March 10, 1987.  Thus, the IRS took the position that someone must be materially participating to cause receipt of CRP rental to constitute net earnings from self-employment. The IRS had taken the same position with respect to payments received under the precursor program to the CRP – the Soil Bank.

The IRS informally (without going through the notice and comment procedures of the APA) changed its historic position concerning the self-employment tax treatment of CRP payments in a Chief Counsel's Letter Ruling dated May 29, 2003. C.C.A. 200325002 (May 29, 2003).   In the ruling, IRS took the position directly contrary to Priv. Ltr. Rul. 8822064 and held that a landowner's activities under a CRP contract amount to material participation and the payments should be reported on Schedule F, not Schedule E or Form 4835.  That is the Chief Counsel's position for retired landowners as well as those conducting a farming business and those who are not conducting a farming business.  In late 2006, IRS issued a Notice of proposed revenue ruling essentially following the 2003 CCA letter ruling. Notice 2006-108, I.R.B. 2006-51.  After the comment period ended (during which IRS received zero public comments supporting its proposed change of position) the IRS announced that it was canceling its plans to issue a Revenue Ruling on the issue, but that it was not changing its position on the matter. However, the IRS never issued the Revenue Ruling that would have obsoleted the key Revenue Rulings from 1960s concerning the self-employment tax treatment of Soil Bank payments.  Rev. Rul. 60-32; Rev. Rul 65-149.    Ultimately, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the new IRS position, noting that the IRS had said it was going to promulgate a new rule announcing its changed position on the issue, but that it failed to do so.  The court voiced its displeasure with the IRS antics in adopting a changed position that it was asserting against taxpayers by agency fiat.  Morehouse v. Comr., 769 F.3d 616 (8th Cir. 2014). 

More recently, in Feigh v. Comr., 152 T.C. No. 15 (2019), the petitioner received a Form W-2 reporting a difficulty of care payment under I.R.C. §131(c). However, such payments are excluded from income as a type of qualified foster care payment if made under a state’s foster care program. In Tech. Adv. Memo. 2010-007, the IRS took the position that the payment of a difficulty care payment to the parent of a disabled child to the parent was not excludible because the “ordinary meaning” of foster care excluded care by a biological payment. But, in Notice 2014-7, and informal IRS pronouncement that is not “substantial authority” for tax purposes and was not subjected to formal rulemaking procedures under the APA, the IRS treated the payment as nontaxable to the recipient. The petitioner did not include the payment in income but did include the amount as earned income in computing the earned income credit under I.R.C. §32 and in computing the refundable child tax credit under I.R.C. §24. The IRS position was that since the amount was not taxable under Notice 2014-7, the amount did not count as earned income for computing the credits. I.R.C. §32(c)(2)(A)(i) states that earned income includes wages, salaries, tips and other employee compensation that has been included in gross income for the tax year.

The petitioner claimed that nothing in the actual statute, I.R.C. §131, allowed the IRS to treat the payment as not includible in gross income. The court agreed, noting that the IRS position was only a Notice and not a formalized Revenue Ruling with the result that the petitioner could exclude the difficulty of care payment and obtain credits on that (untaxed) earned income. The IRS was not allowed to change the impact of the tax law without going through the proper administrative procedure. The IRS later acquiesced in result only to the Tax Court’s decision. A.O.D. 2020-20, 2020-14 IRB 558.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court’s DACA decision is a huge blow to the rule of law as applied in the context of administrative agencies, and the requirement that  agency rules applied with the force of law to farmers and ranchers (and other landowners) must be subjected to the public notice and comment requirement of the APA. 

July 22, 2020 in Regulatory Law | Permalink | Comments (0)