Friday, October 25, 2019

Regulating Existing Water Rights – How Far Can State Government Go?

Overview

Water is an important natural resource to agriculture.  In some parts of the country it is more plentiful than it is in other areas.  That relative scarcity has led the legal system to develop, over time, different approaches for the allocation of water rights.  Particularly in the western two-thirds of the U.S. where water is most scarce, water rights are regulated by at the state level.

The state regulation of water rights can have a significant impact on agricultural activities and land values.  But, just how far can a state go in regulating such rights?  How solid is the water right of a farmer or rancher?  It’s a big issue that is looming large in Kansas at the present time.

The state regulation of water rights – it’s the topic of today’s post.

The Prior Appropriation System

Most of the United States west of the 100th Meridian (a longitude line connecting the North and South Poles that runs through Cozad, Nebraska, Dodge City, Kansas that also forms the eastern border of the Texas panhandle with Oklahoma) utilizes the prior appropriation system for purposes of allocating water.  See, e.g., In re Water Rights of Deschutes River and Tributaries, 134 Ore. 623, 286 P. 1049 (1930).  

The prior appropriation system is based on a recognition that water is relatively scarce, and establishes rights to water based on when water is first put to a beneficial use.  The doctrine grants to the individual first placing available water to a beneficial use, the right to continue to use the water against subsequent claimants.  Thus, the doctrine is referred to as a “first in time, first in right” system of water allocation. The oldest water right on a stream is supplied with the available water to the point at which its state-granted right is met, and then the next oldest right is supplied with the available water and so on until the available supply is exhausted.  In order for a particular landowner to determine whether such person has a prior right as against another person, it is necessary to trace back to the date at which a landowner's predecessor in interest first put water to a beneficial use.  The senior appropriator, in the event of dry conditions, has the right to use as much water as desired up to the established right of the claimant to the exclusion of all junior appropriators. 

The right to divert and make consumptive use of water from a watercourse under the prior appropriation system is typically acquired by making a claim, under applicable procedure, and by diverting the water to beneficial use.  The “beneficial use” concept is basic; a non-useful appropriation is of no effect.  What constitutes a beneficial use depends upon the facts of each particular case.  A prior appropriation water right is typically administered by a state agency that certifies via the issuance of a permit that a water right has been acquired dating from a particular time and tying it to a particular diversion point. 

As applied to groundwater, the prior appropriation doctrine holds that the person who first puts groundwater to a beneficial use has a priority right over other persons subsequently desiring the same water.  This doctrine is applied in many western states that also follow the prior appropriation doctrine with respect to surface water. 

A prior appropriation water right is typically administered by a state agency that certifies via the issuance of a permit that a water right has been acquired dating from a particular time and tying it to a particular diversion point.  Accordingly, such a state administrative process basically confirms the application of the prior appropriation system.  But, can a state do more than simply validate a prior appropriation right and establish a regulatory framework for protecting those rights?  Can a state modify the regulatory system in a manner that diminishes existing water rights without triggering liability to the existing right holders or owing them compensation?  This last point is being tested in Kansas, a state that utilizes the prior appropriation doctrine, at the present time.

Kansas Case

A case in western Kansas is presently testing the limits of how far a state regulatory agency can go in regulating existing water rights.  Just recently the local county trial court issued its opinion in Friesen v. Barfield, No. 2018 CV 10 (Gove County, KS Dist. Ct. Oct. 15, 2019).  The case involved the application of a Kansas law that took effect in 2012, that modified existing water rights.

Under the facts of the case, Kansas Ground Water Management District (GMD) 4 was the first GMD to implement a Local Enhanced Management Area (LEMA) that Kansas law authorized beginning in 2012. A LEMA allows GMD’s to voluntarily implement water conservation practices. After great success with the first LEMA, GMD 4 proposed a district-wide LEMA. The GMD held many public meetings over 2015 and 2016. The GMD Board approved the final LEMA plan and submitted it to the Chief Engineer, Division of Water Resources (CE). The CE approved the LEMA Plan on June 27, 2017, and an official public notice and comment period was opened. After the required two public hearings, the CE found that the LEMA plan was satisfactorily addressed the water conservation issues within GMD 4, and approved the plan. On April 13, 2018, the CE issued the Order of Designation creating the GMD District-Wide LEMA.

The plaintiffs, irrigators and voting members of the GMD, sued to stop the implementation of the LEMA on the basis that it violated vested water rights, was arbitrary and capricious, and unconstitutional. The local trial court disagreed and upheld the district-wide LEMA. The plaintiffs claimed that the water conservation restrictions contained in the proposal were a “collateral attack” on perfected water rights that the CE could not alter. The trial court disagreed, concluding that the groundwater permits did not guarantee any set amount of water. In addition, the trial court noted that the district-wide LEMA was not a permanent reduction in water appropriation but contemplated revisiting the matter in the future. Thus, the trial court concluded that so long as the LEMA is in place and the reduction in pumping is within state law limits, the CE had the discretion to approve the district-wide LEMA.

The plaintiffs also claimed that state law did not provide a definitive guide to the CE and did not protect against arbitrary action, unfairness, or favoritism. The trial court disagreed, noting that state law establishes six prerequisites for a LEMA, five of which must occur within the LEMA area - including decline of the water source. In addition, the trial court noted that the LEMA was additionally reviewable by the state Ag Secretary and subject to judicial review. The trial court also noted that the GMD is elected in a democratic process.

On the plaintiffs’ constitutional equal protection claim, the trial court determined that the LEMA, while sorting irrigators into different classes, did not violate equal protection because such sorting was rationally related to the LEMA's purposes of conserving water resources. On the plaintiffs' claim that the state law governing a LEMA cannot adversely affect vested water rights, the trial court found it relevant that the LEMA was not permanent and concluded that further reductions in water permits are not a taking because all economic benefits of the water have been eliminated. The plaintiffs claimed that the appeal process for the LEMA was inadequate because it did not provide for review by an independent unbiased tribunal. The trial court disagreed, noting that state law provides for judicial review. Also, the trial court determined that the recordkeeping requirements of irrigators was not unconstitutionally vague. The LEMA allows irrigators two ways to record water usage, inspect and record meter readings on a bi-weekly basis or "install or maintain an alternative method of recording," other than the meter that is sufficient to be used to determine operating time in the event of a meter failure."

On the claim that the CE did not follow proper procedure when implementing the LEMA plan, the trial court determined that state law did not require the CE to include findings of fact or law in notice letters. In addition, the final orders did not need to consider constitutional concerns as those are properly reserved for a court. Likewise, the trial court held that the CE did not unlawfully delegate oversight of the LEMA hearing, and that the creation of the district-wide LEMA was not done in a manner that was arbitrary and capricious. 

Conclusion

The Kansas case is the opening round in what will likely be lengthy litigation on the issue of how far a state can go in regulating existing, vested water rights.  As the litigation proceeds, the state might do well to remember that for an alleged regulatory taking of private property rights by the state, disaffected parties no longer need to endure state court litigation on the taking issue before seeking compensation in the federal court system.  Knick v. Township of Scott, 139 S. Ct. 2162 (2019).

October 25, 2019 in Water Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Ag Law in the Courts

Overview 

Agricultural law issues in the courts are many.  On a daily basis, cases involving farmers, ranchers, rural landowners and agribusinesses are decided.  Periodically, on this blog I examine a few of the recent court decisions that are of particular importance and interest.  Today’s post is one such post.

Proving water drainage damage; migrating gas and the rule of capture; and suing for Clean Water Act (CWA)  – these are the topics of today’s post.

The Case of the Wayward Water

In Kellen v. Pottebaum, 928 N.W.2d 874 (Iowa Ct. App. 2019), the defendant installed a drain pipe that discharged water from the defendant’s land to the plaintiffs’ land. The plaintiff sued alleging that the pipe caused an unnatural flow of water which damaged the plaintiff’s farmland and sought damages and removal of the pipe. The defendant counterclaimed arguing that the plaintiff’s prior acts and/or inaction regarding the flow of the water caused damage to the defendant’s property. The trial court determined that neither party had established their claims and dismissed each claim with prejudice.

The appellate court affirmed.  As for the sufficiency of the evidence, the appellate court noted that the defendant owned the dominant estate and the plaintiff owned the servient estate. As such, if the plaintiff could prove that the installation of the pipe considerably increased the volume of water flowing onto the plaintiff’s land or substantially changed the drainage and actual damage resulted, the plaintiff would be entitled to relief. However, most of the evidence presented to the court was the observations of lay witnesses rather than measured water flow. Accordingly, the appellate court agreed with the trial court that the plaintiff did not prove by a preponderance of the evidence that installation of the pipe caused the increased water flow. The appellate court noted that a “reasonable fact finder” could attribute the additional water on the plaintiffs’ property to the increased rain fall during the years at issue. The appellate court also determined that the plaintiffs did not prove by preponderance of the evidence that installation of the pipe substantially changed the drainage. The water did not flow in a different direction on the plaintiff’s property. Rather, the defendant altered the flow of water across his property in a natural direction towards the plaintiff’s drainage, which is permissible under state (IA) law. Thus, the plaintiff did not prove harm by a preponderance of the evidence. The appellate court also concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion excluding some of the plaintiff’s evidence. 

Ownership of Migrated Gas

In Northern Natural Gas Co. v. ONEOK Field Servs. Co., LLC, No. 118,239, 2019 Kan. LEXIS 324 (Kan. Sup. Ct. Sept. 6, 2019), the plaintiff operated an underground gas storage facility, which was certified by the proper state and federal commissions. The defendants were producers with wells located two to six miles from the edge of the plaintiff’s certified storage area. Stored gas migrated to the defendants’ wells and the defendants captured and sold the gas as their own. The plaintiff sued for lost gas sales and the defendants moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the Kansas common law rule of capture allowed the gas extraction. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion. Two years later, the plaintiff received certification to expand the storage area into the areas with the defendants’ wells. Another dispute arose as to whether the defendants could capture the gas after the plaintiff’s storage area was expanded. The trial court held that the defendants could under the common law rule of capture.

On review, the Kansas Supreme Court reversed and remanded on the basis that the rule of capture did not apply. That rule, the Court noted, allows someone that is acting within their legal rights to capture oil and gas that has migrated from the owner’s property to use the migrated oil and gas for their own purposes. The rule reflects the application of new technology such as injection wells and applies to non-native gas injected into common pools for storage. However, the Court reasoned, the rule does not apply when a party (such as the plaintiff) is authorized to store gas and the storage is identifiable. The Court determined that state statutory law did not override this recognized exception to the application of the rule of capture. The Court remanded the case for a computation of damages for the lost gas. 

Jurisdiction Over CWA §404 Permit Violations – Who Can Sue?

A recent case involving a California farmer has raised some eyebrows.  In the case, the trial court allowed the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to sue the farmer for an alleged CWA dredge and bill permit violation without a specific recommendation from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  The farmer was alleged to have discharged “pollutants” into a “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) as a result of tractor tillage activities on his farmland containing or near to wetlands contiguous to a creek that flowed into a WOTUS.  Staff of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) saw the tilled ground and investigated.  The COE staff then conferred with the EPA and then referred the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).  The DOJ sued (during the Obama Administration) for enforcement of a CWA §404 permit “by the authority of the Attorney General, and at the request of the Secretary of the Army acting through the United States Corps of Engineers.”  The DOJ alleged that the equipment "constituted a 'point source'" pollutant under the CWA and "resulted in the placement of dredged spoil, biological materials, rock, sand, cellar dirt or other earthen material constituting “pollutants” (within the meaning of 33 U.S.C. § 1362(6) into waters of the United States. The DOJ alleged that the defendant impacted water plants, changed the river bottom and/or replaced Waters of the United States with dry land, and "resulted in the 'discharge of any pollutant' within the meaning of 33 U.S.C. § 1311(a)." 

The defendant moved for summary judgment on the basis that the CWA authorizes only the EPA Administrator to file a CWA §404 enforcement action and that the court, therefore, lacked jurisdiction.  The court disagreed with the defendant on the basis that 28 U.S.C. §1345 conferred jurisdiction.  That statute states, “Except as otherwise provided by Act of Congress, the district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions, suits or proceedings commenced by the United States or by any agency or officer thereof expressly authorized to sue by Act of Congress.  The court rejected the defendant’s claim that 33 U.S.C. §1319(b) and 33 U.S.C. §1344(s)(3) authorized only the EPA to sue for violations of the CWA, thereby limiting the jurisdiction conferred by 28 U.S.C. §1345.  Those provisions provide that the EPA Secretary is the party vested with the authority to sue for alleged CWA violations.  The court determined that there is a “strong presumption” against implied repeal of federal statutes, especially those granting jurisdiction to federal courts.  In addition, the court determined that the defendant failed to show that the general grant of jurisdiction was irreconcilable with either of the statutes the defendant cited.  Accordingly, the court determined that the defendant could be sued by the U.S. Department of Justice upon the mere recommendation of the COE and without a specific recommendation from the EPA alleging a CWA violation, and in a situation where the CWA did not determine any CWA jurisdiction and only the COE did.  This finding was despite a 1979 Attorney General opinion No. 197 determining that the EPA and not the COE has the ultimate authority to construe what is a navigable WOTUS.

Ultimately, the parties negotiated a settlement. The settlement included $1,750,000 civil penalty. The land which the farmer’s acts occurred will be converted to a conservation reserve and a permanent easement will run with the land to bar any future disturbance.  The settlement also specified that the farmer would spend $3,550,000 "to purchase vernal pool establishment, re-establishment, or rehabilitation credits from one or more COE-approved mitigation banks that serve the [applicable] area . . . .".  The settlement also included other enforcement stipulations, including fines and the civil penalty for noncompliance.  No comments on the settlement were received during the public comment period, after which the settlement was submitted to the court for approval.  The court approved the settlement ad consent decree on the basis that it was fair, reasonable, properly negotiated and consistent with governing law.  The court also determined that the settlement satisfied the goals of the CWA in that it permanently protected the Conservation Reserve (which contained between 75 and 139 acres of WOTUS); fixed damage caused by unauthorized discharges; applied a long-term pre-clearance injunction; required off-site compensatory mitigation and recouped a significant civil penalty.  The case is United States v. Lapant, No. 2:16-CV-01498-KJM-DB, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75309 (E.D. Cal. May 3, 2019)United States v. Lapant, No. 2:16-CV-01498-KJM-DB, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93590 (E.D. Cal. Jun. 3, 2019).

Conclusion

The three cases summarized today further illustrate the various legal battles that involve farmers, ranchers and rural landowners.  They also illustrate the need to legal counsel that is well-versed in agricultural issues.  That’s what we are all about in the Rural Law Program at Washburn Law School – providing high-level training in agricultural legal and tax issues and then getting new graduates placed in rural areas to represent farmers and ranchers. 

October 9, 2019 in Environmental Law, Real Property, Water Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 2, 2019

Ag Legal Issues in the Courts

Overview

It’s been about a month since I devoted a blog post to court litigation involving agricultural producers and businesses.  So, it’s time to devote another post to the matter as an illustration of how often the law and the business of agriculture intersect.  These posts have proven to be quite popular and instructive.

“Ag in the Courtroom” – the most recent edition.  It’s the topic of today’s post.

More Bankruptcy Developments

As I have noted in numerous posts over the past couple of years, the difficult economic conditions in much of agriculture in the Great Plains and the Midwest have made bankruptcy law rise in importance.  Fortunately, legislation is headed to the President’s desk that will increase the debt limit in Chapter 12 bankruptcy to $10 million and place some of the existing Chapter 12 provisions in Chapter 11 for use by non-farm small businesses.  Those were needed pieces of legislation.

A recent Alabama bankruptcy case illustrates the peril of selling loan collateral without the creditors notice and consent.  It’s a unique set of facts because the debtor sold the collateral, a tractor, to bail her boyfriend out of jail.  In In re Reid, 598 B.R. 674 (Bankr. S.D. Ala. 2019), the Farm Service Agency (FSA) attached itself as a creditor in the debtor’s chapter 7 bankruptcy proceeding. In March of 2016 the debtor took out two FSA loans for a total of $50,000. A security agreement was also executed at the same time granting the FSA a security interest in "All farm equipment . . . and inventory, now owned or hereafter acquired by the Debtor, together with all replacements, substitutions, additions, and accessions thereto, including but not limited to the following which are located in the State of Alabama." A specific list of assets was attached, including a New Holland tractor, ten beef breeding cows, and nine calves. The debtor used the loan proceeds to purchase the equipment and livestock that was listed as collateral.

In June of the same year, the debtor was notified that she could not have cattle on the land she purchased with another loan not at issue in the case. However, the debtor was never notified of the restriction and it was not stated in the purchase contracts. Ultimately, the debtor was given thirty days to vacate the premises. Around this time, the debtor’s equipment and cattle started to go missing. The debtor was also becoming aware that her boyfriend (and father of her children) had a drug problem, and she began to suspect that he was selling the equipment and cattle for drugs. Later, the debtor attempted to stop a man from taking cattle from the property and the man said to take it up with her boyfriend. The debtor did not report the cattle or equipment as stolen. The debtor’s boyfriend was arrested about the same time for drug crimes and eluding the police. The debtor vacated the property with the only collateral remaining at the property being the New Holland tractor, which the debtor listed for sale on Facebook. The debtor testified that she sold the New Holland tractor to an unknown purchaser for between $6,000.00 and $8,000.00. But the exact price and identity of the purchaser could not be found as the debtor deleted her Facebook account. The proceeds of the tractor sale were put towards bail money for the boyfriend. The debtor never made a payment on the loans and vacated the property before the first payment was due.

The FSA attempted to recover the tractor but was unsuccessful. The FSA sought to have the bankruptcy court find the debt owed to the FSA in the amount of $52,048.56 plus interest to be non-dischargeable for fraud; fiduciary defalcation; embezzlement; and willful and malicious injury. The court averaged the alleged selling price of the tractor and rendered $7,000 non-dischargeable. The court also determined that the debtor did not fraudulently obtain the FSA loans, and did not embezzle the collateral because fraud wasn’t present. Because willful and malicious injury was present upon the debtor’s sale of the tractor without notice to the FSA and use of the proceeds for the debtor’s personal benefit, the $7,000 that the debtor received upon sale of the tractor was non-dischargeable. 

The Intersection of State and Federal Regulation

Agriculture is a heavily regulated industry.  Sometimes that regulation is apparent and sometimes it occurs an a rather unique manner.  Sometimes it comes from the federal government and sometimes it is purely at the state and local level.  In yet other situations, the regulation is an interesting (and frustrating for those subject to it) blend of federal and state/local regulation. 

In 2009, the defendant in Carroll Airport Comm'n v. Danner, No. 17-1458, 2019 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 57 (May 10, 2019), planned to construct a grain leg (bucket elevator) and grain bins. In 2013, the defendant obtained the proper county zoning permits but was told of the need to comply with the airport zoning ordinances. The grain leg stands within 10,000 feet horizontally from the end of plaintiff’s runway. The structure reaches a height of 127 feet off the ground. The parties agree the grain leg intrudes within the airport's protected airspace by approximately sixty feet. After construction began it was evident that there would be issues with the airport zoning ordinances and the plaintiff asked the Federal Airport Administration (FAA) to perform an aeronautical study of the grain leg and its impact on aviation safety. The FAA issued a letter stating, "This aeronautical study revealed that the structure does exceed obstruction standards but would not be a hazard to air navigation." It also warned, “This determination concerns the effect of this structure on the safe and efficient use of navigable airspace by aircraft and does not relieve the sponsor (i.e., the defendant) of compliance responsibilities relating to any law, ordinance, or regulation of any Federal, State, or local government body.” Lastly the FAA requested that the defendant paint the structure and add red lights to the top of it. The defendant did so. The FAA also adjusted the flight patterns in and out of the airport to accommodate this structure. The plaintiff did not seek review under this determination.

Two years later, the plaintiff (the local airport commission) sued alleging the grain leg violated certain building ordinances; city and county zoning ordinances; airport commission regulations; and constituted a nuisance and hazard to air traffic. The plaintiff sought equitable relief—an injunction requiring the defendant to modify or remove the grain leg. The defendant raised an affirmative defense of federal preemption. In June 2017, the trial court found that the grain leg violated state and local zoning ordinances and constituted a nuisance and an airport hazard. The trial court found that the grain leg did not fall within the agricultural exemption to certain zoning laws and rejected the defendants’ affirmative defense that the no-hazard letter preempted state and local zoning ordinances. The appellate court affirmed, concluding that the doctrines of express, implied, and conflict preemption did not apply to the FAA no-hazard determination. On further review, the state Supreme Court affirmed. The Supreme Court concluded that the FAA no-hazard determination did not preempt local zoning ordinances, was not legally binding, and contained language notifying the defendant that compliance with local rules was required. 

Water Rights

Rights involving surface water vary from state-to-state.  In some parts of the U.S., however, a party owning land adjacent to a watercourse has what are known as “riparian” rights to the water.  But, do those rights apply to man-made lakes, or just natural lakes?  The issue came up recently in Incline Village Board of Trustees v. Edler, No. SC97345, 2019 Mo. LEXIS 178 (Mo. Sup. Ct. Apr. 30, 2019). 

The defendants owned properties in subdivisions around a lake. One of the properties of the second subdivision abutted the lake. The properties they owned in the first subdivision did not abut the lake. During the creation of the first subdivision, restrictions were added to the land. One such restriction stated, “No structures or other improvements shall be made on or to any common area, including any body of water, other than such structures or improvements which are made by the trustees for the benefit of all lot owners. Except that, the owner of each lot which abuts any body of water, may construct one boat dock on such body of water, provided that, said boat dock extends from said lot and is first approved in writing by the trustees.” All landowners in the first subdivision were entitled to use the lake, even if they did not abut the lake. The second subdivision was not joined with the first one, but it was clear that the second subdivision was excluded from use rights on the lake. Lots in the first subdivision were subject to assessments to maintain the lakes.

The defendants built a dock on the property on the second subdivision. The trustees of the first subdivision defendants sued seeking a declaratory judgment, damages for trespass, and the removal of the dock. The district court ordered removal of the dock and determined that special circumstances existed supporting the award of attorney's fees of $70,000 in favor of the trustees.

On appeal, the appellate court determined that the lake was clearly artificial and, thus, the defendants were not riparian owners. Riparian rights are only extended to landowners adjacent to natural lakes. The appellate court also rejected the defendants’ reliance-based argument. The appellate court noted that the defendants had never had use of the lake for dock purposes or paid assessments for its maintenance. In addition, the defendants’ predecessor in title's deed to the adjacent land explicitly excepted the lake from the transfer. In addition, the plaintiffs had told the defendants of the property restrictions before the dock was built. As for attorney fees, the appellate court determined that there was not any special circumstance to merit an award of attorney fees. The plaintiff had not given any formal warning about not building the dock and the defendants had sought legal advice. 

Conclusion

It’s never a dull moment in ag law involving ag producers, agribusinesses and rural landowners.  The cases keep on rolling in. 

August 2, 2019 in Bankruptcy, Regulatory Law, Water Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Accommodation Doctrine – More Court Action

Overview

Over the past three years, I have written on a couple of occasions about the accommodation doctrine – a mineral owner’s right to use the surface estate to drill for and produce minerals.  The doctrine requires a balancing of the interests of the surface and mineral owner.  But, at least one court has also applied the doctrine to groundwater.  Now, a federal appellate court has applied the doctrine to find that vertical drilling on farmland may constitute a trespass.

An update on the accommodation doctrine in the courts – that’s the topic of today’s post.

Accommodation Doctrine

Land ownership includes two separate estates in land – the surface estate and the mineral estate.  The mineral estate can be severed from the surface estate with the result that ownership of the separate estates is in different parties.  In some states, the mineral estate is dominant.  That means that the mineral estate owner can freely use the surface estate to the extent reasonably necessary for the exploration, development and production of the minerals beneath the surface.  If the owner of the mineral estate has only a single method for developing the minerals, many courts will allow that method to be utilized without consideration of its impact on the activities of the surface estate owner.  See., e.g., Merriman v. XTO Energy, Inc., 407 S.W.3d 244 (Tex. 2013). 

But, under the accommodation doctrine, if alternative means of development are reasonably available that would not disrupt existing activities on the surface those alternative means must be utilized.  In other words, the accommodation doctrine applies if the surface owner must establish that the lessee’s surface use precludes (or substantially impairs) the existing surface use, and that the surface owner doesn’t have any reasonable alternative means to continue the current use of the surface estate.  For example, in Getty Oil co. v. Jones, 470 S.W.2d 618 (Tex. 1971), a surface estate owner claimed that the mineral estate owner did not accommodate existing surface use.  To prevail on that claim, the Getty court determined that the surface owner must prove that the mineral estate owner’s use precluded or substantially impaired the existing surface use, that the surface estate owner had no reasonable alternative method for continuing the existing surface use, and that the mineral estate owner has reasonable development alternatives that would not disrupt the surface use. 

Accommodation Doctrine and Water

A question left unanswered in the 1971 decision was whether the accommodation doctrine applied beyond subsurface mineral use to the exercise of groundwater rights.  In 2016, the Texas Supreme Court, in Coyote Lake Ranch, LLC v. City of Lubbock, 498 S.W.3d 53 (Tex. Sup. Ct. 2016), held that it did.  Thus, according to the Court, the doctrine applies in situations where the owner of the groundwater impairs an existing surface use, the surface owner has no reasonable alternative to continue surface use, and the groundwater owner has a reasonable way to access and produce water while simultaneously allowing the surface owner to use the surface.

The Court held that the language of the deed for the land involved in the litigation governed the rights of the parties, but that the deed didn’t address the core issues presented in the case. For example, the Court determined that the deed was silent on the issue of where drilling could occur and the usage of overhead power lines and facilities associated with water development. The Court determined that water and minerals were sufficiently similar such that the accommodation doctrine should also apply to water – both disappear, can be severed, and are subject to the rule of capture, etc. The Court also concluded that a groundwater estate severed from the surface estate enjoys an implied right to use as much of the surface as is reasonably necessary for the production of groundwater. Thus, unless the parties have a written agreement detailing all of the associated rights and responsibilities of the parties, the accommodation doctrine would apply to resolve disputes and sort out rights.

In 2018, however, the Texas Court of Appeals, refused to further expand the accommodation doctrine.  Harrison v. Rosetta Res. Operating, LP, No. 08-15-00318-CV 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 6208 (Tex Ct. App. Aug. 8, 2018), involved a water-use dispute between an oil and gas lessee and the surface owner. The plaintiff owned the surface of a 320-acre tract. The surface estate had been severed from the mineral estate, with the minerals being owned by the State of Texas.  The plaintiff executed an oil and gas lease on behalf of the State that allowed the lessee to use water from the land necessary for operations except water from wells or tanks of the landowner.

To settle a lawsuit with the plaintiff, the lessee agreed to buy 120,000 barrels of water.  The lessee built a frac pit to store the water that it would use in drilling operations and drilled two wells.  The lessee then assigned the lease to the defendant.  The defendant drilled a third well and had plans to drill additional wells.  However, the defendant did not buy water from the plaintiff as the lessee had.  Instead, the defendant pumped water from a neighbor and brought temporary waterlines onto the plaintiff’s property to fill storage tanks. 

The plaintiff claimed that the defendant (via an employee) orally agreed to continue the existing arrangement that the plaintiff had with lessee and was in violation with an alleged industry custom in Texas – that an oil and gas lessee would only buy water from the surface owner of the tract it was operating.  The plaintiff claimed that it wasn’t necessary for the defendant to bring in hoses and equipment because the defendant should have bought the plaintiff’s water from the plaintiff, Not doing so violated the accommodation doctrine.  The trial court rejected the plaintiff’s arguments.

The appellate court determined that the plaintiff’s accommodation doctrine arguments appeared to rest on his proposition that because a frac pit was built on his land for use by the former lessee, it unified the use of the land with the oil and gas operations, and when the defendant chose not buy his water it substantially interfered with his existing use of the land as a source of water for drilling operations. Thus, the substantial interference complained of was that the frac pit was no longer profitable because the defendant is not using it to supply water for its operations. The appellate court held that categorizing a refusal to buy goods produced from the land as interference with the land for purposes of the accommodation doctrine would stretch the doctrine beyond recognition. Therefore, because the defendant’s use did not impair the plaintiff’s existing surface use in any way, except in the sense that not buying the water had precluded the plaintiff from realizing potential revenue from selling its water to the defendant, the inconvenience to the surface estate was not evidence that the owner had no reasonable alternative to maintain the existing use. Lastly, the court determined that if it were to hold for the plaintiff on these facts they would, in effect, be holding that all mineral lessees must use and purchase water from the surface owner under the accommodation doctrine if his water is available for use. Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed. 

Recent Case

In, Bay v. Anadarko E&P Onshore LLC, No. 17-1374, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 36454 (10th Cir. Dec. 26, 2018), the plaintiffs, a married couple, operate a farm in Weld, County, CO. In 1907, the Union Pacific Railroad acquired large swaths of land and sold off surface rights to others, ultimately selling subsurface rights to mineral deposits to the defendant, an oil and gas company. The 1907 deed reserved the following: “First. All coal and other minerals within or underlying said lands. Second. The exclusive right to prospect in and upon said land for coal and other minerals therein, or which may be supposed to be therein, and to mine for and remove, from said land, all coal and other minerals which may be found thereon by anyone. Third. The right of ingress, egress and regress upon said land to prospect for, mine and remove any and all such coal or other minerals; and the right to use so much of said land as may be convenient or necessary for the right-of-way to and from such prospect places or mines, and for the convenient and proper operation of such prospect places, mines, and for roads and approaches thereto or for removal therefrom of coal, mineral, machinery or other material” [emphasis added].

The plaintiffs’ farm was above a large oil and gas deposit. Before 2000, the railroad entered into agreements with surface owners before drilling for oil or gas. Those agreements often included payments to surface owners and provided that the railroad would pay for surface property damages, including crop damages. In 2000, the defendant bought the railroad’s mineral rights in the oil and gas deposit underlying the plaintiffs’ property. In 2004, the defendant leased the mineral rights under the plaintiffs’ farms to an exploration company which drilled three vertical wells on a part of the plaintiffs’ farm. An energy company bought the exploration company in 2006 and drilled four more vertical wells on another part of the plaintiffs’ farm between 2007 and 2011. In an attempt to have fewer wells drilled on their farm and minimize the impact to their farmland, the plaintiffs asked the energy company to drill directionally. The energy company requested $100,000 per directional well. The plaintiffs refused, and the energy company continued to drill vertically. The plaintiffs sued, claiming that the energy company’s surface use constituted a trespass because directional drilling would have resulted in two wells on their property rather than seven.  Directional drilling is the norm in the county with one drill site per pad serving 12-36 wells.

The trial court granted a judgment as a matter of law to the defendant on the basis that the defendant had presented sufficient evidence that vertical drilling was the only commercially reasonable practice; that this practice was afforded in the additional rights granted in the original deed; and that the plaintiffs could not establish trespass. On appeal, the appellate court reversed. The appellate court noted that state law held that deeds containing language identical to the “convenient and necessary” language of the deed at issue does not grant mineral owners more rights than what state common law provides. The appellate court also expressed doubt as to whether a mineral reservation in a deed can expand surface or mineral ownership rights unless those rights are clearly defined in accordance with Gerrity Oil and Gas Corp. v. Magness, 946 P.2d 913 (Colo. 1997). The appellate court concluded that the deed at issue in the case was insufficient to expand mineral or surface rights beyond those recognized in state common law. The appellate court also held that the trial court erred by requiring the plaintiffs to show that vertical drilling wasn’t commercially reasonable. Under Gerrity, the appellate court noted, a surface owner can introduce evidence that "reasonable alternatives were available." Once that evidence is introduced, the appellate court determined that it is then up to a judge or jury to "balance the competing interests of the operator and surface owner and objectively determine whether ... the operator's surface use was both reasonable and necessary." 

Conclusion

The accommodation doctrine sounds reasonable.  But, defining what a reasonable use can be difficult to determine, and if new uses can be asserted the mineral owner’s rights can be diminished.  From an economic standpoint, it would seem that the owner of the surface estate as the accommodated party should pay for the extra expense associated with the accommodation.  In other words, when the mineral estate owner must accommodate, but at the expense of the surface estate owner, both parties benefit and the surface estate owner can’t get rights back for nothing that it sold when the original grant was created.  Some states, such as Kansas, follow this approach.

January 30, 2019 in Real Property, Water Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 31, 2018

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

Overview

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

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

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

The “Almost Top Ten” - No Particular Order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Drainage Issues – Rules For Handling Excess Surface Water

Overview

For agriculture, drainage of surface water is a significant legal issue. When surface water is sufficient, problems can arise concerning disposal of rainfall and/or melting snow which water-logs valuable fields and pastures forming bogs and sinkholes, thereby making cultivation difficult or impossible. The drainage of excess surface water can create disputes among rural landowners.  While it’s an issue that arises more frequently in the areas of the U.S. that are east of the Missouri River, it sometimes comes up in the more arid parts of the country.  When too much surface water is present, how can it be disposed of without creating legal problems with an adjoining property owner? 

The rules governing the disposal of excess surface water – that’s the topic of today’s post

General Rule

In general, it has historically been wrongful for a landowner to disturb the existing pattern of drainage and thereby obstruct the flow of water from another's lands, or cast upon the lands of another more water than would naturally flow thereupon, or cause an usually high concentration of water in the course of drainage.  While that’s the general rule, there are exceptions.  Indeed, at least three different legal theories may be utilized to resolve surface water drainage conflicts.

The rule of absolute ownership. The rule of absolute ownership, also known as the common enemy rule, is the oldest legal theory applicable to the use of surface water. This rule is based upon the theory that surface water is the enemy of every landowner and a property owner is given complete freedom to discharge surface waters regardless of the harm that might result to others. The owner is allowed to dispose of surface water in any manner that will result in the highest benefit to his or her land. In its original form, the common-enemy doctrine encouraged land development, but also encouraged conflict both between and among landowners.

Today, most courts have modified this rule by importing into it qualifications based on concepts of reasonable use, negligence, and/or nuisance to prohibit discharges of large quantities of water onto adjoining land by artificial means in a concentrated flow, except through natural drainways.  For example, in Currens v. Sleek, 138 Wash. 2d 858, 983 P.2d 626 (1999), the court determined that a landowner has an unqualified right to make lawful improvements on their own land, but those improvements must limit the harm caused by changes in the flow of surface water to that which is reasonably necessary.  See also Johnson v. Philips, 433 S.E.2d 895 (S.C. Ct. App. 1993).  If land clearing activities alter the surface drainage significantly, it may give an adjoining landowner the basis to bring a nuisance suit.  For example, in Lucas v. Rawl Family Partnership, 359 S.C. 505, 598 S.E.2d 712 (2004), the evidence showed that after the neighbors cleared their land, the owner's fields flooded in every heavy rain, making it unsuitable for crops. The court held that there was a jury question presented as to whether the neighbors' actions constituted a nuisance per se and were dangerous to the property at all times.  Similarly, in Mullins v. Greer, 26 Va. 587, 311 S.E.2d 110 (1984), a landowner had constructed an embankment causing excess water to flow onto a neighbor.  The landowner claimed that the embankment was properly constructed and didn’t interfere with the natural channel and flow of a stream.  The court ordered the landowner to remove the embankment. 

The civil law rule.  The civil law rule imposes liability upon one who interferes with the natural flow of surface water and, as a result, invades another's interest in land. This rule is the opposite of the common enemy rule, and is phrased in terms of dominant and servient estates. This rule imposes a servitude upon the lower or servient estate which requires that it receive all waters which flow in the course of nature from the higher or dominant tract. The owner of the dominant tract cannot, however, do anything that would increase the natural drainage burden imposed upon the lower estate.  But, the complaining party must prove that they incurred damage.      For example, in Mullen v. Natural Gas Line Company of America L.L.C., 801 N.W.2d 627 (Iowa Ct. App. 2011), the plaintiff failed to prove that the defendant’s drainage activity increased the quantity of water or changed the manner of discharge onto the plaintiff’s property.  As a result, the plaintiff was denied injunctive relief and damages.

Essentially, the civil law rule involves accepting the natural flow of water. While this rule minimizes conflict between and among landowners, it also discourages land improvement. As a result, some states have modified the civil law rule to accommodate artificial changes in the natural flow of surface water if the change is incidental to the normal use and improvement of land. These changes are most likely to be acceptable when the water empties into an existing natural watercourse. However, substantial changes in natural drainage flows resulting in damages to an adjoining landowner are not permissible. This rule applies even in connection with governmentally approved soil conservation practices that substantially alter the natural flow of surface water.  For example, in O’Tool v. Hathaway, 461, N.W.2d 161 (Iowa 1990), a farmer constructed several conservation terraces as part of his soil and water conservation plan for the farm.  One of the terraces broke during a heavy rainfall and the resulting flow of the previously ponded water in the terrace damaged the basement of neighboring homeowners.  The homeowners sued, alleging liability because the flow of the water from the terrace break had altered the natural flow of water from the dominant to the servient estate.  The trial court agreed and awarded them damages for materials to fix their basement.  The appellate court tacked on labor expenses, finding that the farmer was liable under the "natural flow" doctrine because the farmer had substantially changed the water drainage method.  The appellate court found that the farmer was negligent in constructing a terrace in a location that if it broke, the resulting water flow would cause foreseeable damages to the homeowners. 

The strict application of the civil law rule has also been modified by a so-called “husbandry” exception, and interference with natural drainage will be allowed if the interference is limited to that which is incidental to reasonable development of the dominant estate for agricultural purposes.  See, e.g., Callahan v. Rickey, 93 Ill. App. 3d 916, 418 N.E.2d 167 (1981).

Reasonable Use Rule. Today, many jurisdictions have adopted the rule of reasonable use which attempts to avoid the rigidities of either the civil-law or common-enemy doctrines. Instead, the reasonable use rule determines the rights of the parties by an assessment of all the relevant factors with respect to interference with the drainage of surface waters. Under the reasonable use rule, a landowner is entitled to make a reasonable use of diffused surface water, with such use being a factual question for a juryFor example, in Kral v. Boesch, 557 N.W.2d 597 (Minn. Ct. App. 1996), a landowner created a channel to drain surface water from his property to a tile intake bordering the parties' properties by lowering the intake in order to allow the channel water to flow into it.  The neighbor discovered what the landowner had done and raised the intake to keep the water out and plugged it with cement, which caused surface water to stand in three areas of the landowner’s property and damaged the landowner’s crops.  The trial court determined that the granted injunctive relief to the landowner under the reasonable use rule.  On appellate court affirmed.  It was appropriate for the landowner to drain water into the adjoining owner’s tile drainage system. 

Ultimately, in legal disputes over the application of the reasonable use rule, it’s often up to a jury.  The jury must determine whether the benefit to the actor's land outweighs the harm that results from the alteration of the flow of surface water onto neighboring lands. A landowner will be liable for damages only to the extent that interference with the flow of surface water is unreasonable. Whether a landowner has acted reasonably in removing excess surface water depends upon such things as the degree or extent of harm, the foreseeability of damage, and the amount of care that was exercised to prevent damage. Is the drainage reasonably necessary?  Did the party draining the excess water take reasonable care to avoid unnecessary damage to a neighbor’s property?  Is the benefit from diverting the excess water greater than the harm to the neighbor?  Does the draining improve the “normal and natural” system of drainage?  These are all important questions to ask before diverting excess water on to a neighbor.  These are often the questions a jury will weigh.

Drainage codes.  Many states have adopted statutory drainage codes.  Under those codes, a  landowner  can  institute  drainage  proceedings for the construction, repair or improvement of agricultural drainage ditches.  These codes, if they apply in a particular situation, must be complied with.

Conclusion

Excess surface water can be can be diverted and discharged onto a neighbor.  However, care must be taken in doing so.

December 19, 2018 in Water Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Agricultural Law Online!

Overview

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

Course Coverage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Information and How to Register

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

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

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

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

I hope to see you in January!

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

KStateAgriculturalLawandEconomicsPostcard

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

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Accommodation Doctrine – Working Out Uses Between Surface and Subsurface Owners

Overview

Land ownership includes two separate estates in land – the surface estate and the mineral estate.  The mineral estate can be severed from the surface estate with the result that ownership of the separate estates is in different parties.  In some states, the mineral estate is dominant.  That means that the mineral estate owner can freely use the surface estate to the extent reasonably necessary for the exploration, development and production of the minerals beneath the surface.

The “accommodation doctrine” is a court-made doctrine relating to the mineral owner's right to use the surface estate to drill for and produce minerals. ... The doctrine requires a balancing of the interests of the surface and mineral owner.  How that balancing works was at issue in a recent case.

The accommodation doctrine – that’s the topic of today’s post.

The Accommodation Doctrine

If the owner of the mineral estate has only a single method for developing the minerals, many courts will allow that method to be utilized without consideration of its impact on the activities of the surface estate owner.  See., e.g., Merriman v. XTO Energy, Inc., 407 S.W.3d 244 (Tex. 2013).  But, under the accommodation doctrine, if alternative means of development are reasonably available that would not disrupt existing activities on the surface those alternative means must be utilized.  For example, in Getty Oil co. v. Jones, 470 S.W.2d 618 (Tex. 1971), a surface estate owner claimed that the mineral estate owner did not accommodate existing surface use. 

To prevail on that claim, the Texas Supreme Court, determined that the surface owner must prove that the mineral estate owner’s use precluded or substantially impaired the existing surface use, that the surface estate owner had no reasonable alternative method for continuing the existing surface use, and that the mineral estate owner has reasonable development alternatives that would not disrupt the surface use.  A question left unanswered in the 1971 decision was whether the accommodation doctrine applied beyond subsurface mineral use to the exercise of groundwater rights.  But, in 2016, the court said that the doctrine said the doctrine applied to groundwater.  Coyote Lake Ranch, LLC v. City of Lubbock, No. 14-0572, 2016 Tex. LEXIS 415 (Tex. Sup. Ct. May 27, 2016).

Recent Case

Harrison v. Rosetta Res. Operating, LP, No. 08-15-00318-CV 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 6208 (Tex Ct. App. Aug. 8, 2018), involved a water-use dispute between an oil and gas lessee and the surface owner. The plaintiff owned the surface of a 320-acre tract. The surface estate had been severed from the mineral estate, with the minerals being owned by the State of Texas. In October 2009, the plaintiff executed an oil and gas lease on behalf of the State with Eagle Oil & Gas Co. Eagle began its drilling operations, but before completing its first well it assigned the lease to Comstock Oil & Gas, L.P., subject to an agreement to indemnify Eagle against claims arising from its operations to that point. Within a few months, the plaintiff and several other plaintiffs sued Eagle for negligently destroying the plaintiff’s irrigation ditch as well as damage resulting from road construction, among other claims. Comstock defended Eagle in the lawsuit and settled a few months later. According to the settlement agreement, Comstock would make repairs to a water well on the plaintiff’s land and purchase 120,000 barrels of water from the plaintiff at a rate of fifty cents per barrel. A plastic-lined “frac pit” was also built on the property to store water produced from the well, although the pit was not a requirement of the settlement agreement. Comstock complied with the agreement and purchased the required amounts of water from the plaintiff at the agreed price. Comstock completed two oil wells on the property that year and began constructing a third well the following year. Before completing the third well, however, Comstock assigned the least to Rosetta Resources Operating, LP, the defendant in this case, who continued construction of the third well and began construction of several more. Unlike Comstock, the defendant did not purchase its water from the plaintiff, choosing instead to pump in water from an adjacent property, a neighbor of the plaintiff.

After learning that the defendant was importing his neighbor’s water, the plaintiff filed suit in his individual capacity and as trustee against the defendant for breach of contract, claiming an employee of the defendant had orally agreed to continue the same arrangement the plaintiff had enjoyed with Comstock. He also sought to permanently enjoin the defendant from using his neighbor’s water and sought cancellation of the State’s oil and gas lease. The defendant filed three motions for summary judgment that collectively challenged all of the plaintiff’s claims. In response, the plaintiff filed an amended petition asserting that the defendant had violated the “accommodation doctrine” by not purchasing his water, thus rendering his well and frac pit useless and unnecessarily causing damage to his property. The trial court granted the defendant’s motions for summary judgment in their entirety. The plaintiff appealed.

The appellate court determined that the plaintiff’s accommodation doctrine arguments appeared to rest on his proposition that because a frac pit was built on his land for use by the former lessee, it unified the use of the land with the oil and gas operations, and when the defendant chose not buy his water it substantially interfered with his existing use of the land as a source of water for drilling operations. Thus, the substantial interference complained of was that the frac pit was no longer profitable because the defendant is not using it to supply water for its operations. The appellate court held that categorizing a refusal to buy goods produced from the land as interference with the land for purposes of the accommodation doctrine would stretch the doctrine beyond recognition. Therefore, because the defendant’s use did not impair the plaintiff’s existing surface use in any way, except in the sense that not buying the water had precluded the plaintiff from realizing potential revenue from selling its water to the defendant, the inconvenience to the surface estate was not evidence that the owner had no reasonable alternative to maintain the existing use. Lastly, the court determined that if it were to hold for the plaintiff on these facts they would, in effect, be holding that all mineral lessees must use and purchase water from the surface owner under the accommodation doctrine if his water is available for use. Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed. 

Conclusion

The accommodation doctrine is not designed to substitute for common sense reasonableness when the dominant estate owner has two clear options for doing something that involve the same cost. If one option is more disruptive to the surface owner, inherent limits of reasonable use dictate use of the less disruptive option.  The recent Texas case is just another illustration of how courts wrestle with the application of the doctrine.

September 20, 2018 in Real Property, Water Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Agricultural Law and Economics Conference

Overview

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

Symposium

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

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

Risk and Profit Conference

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

Conclusion

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

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

Friday, January 5, 2018

Top Ten Agricultural Law and Tax Developments of 2017 (Five Through One)

Overview

This week we are looking at the biggest developments in agricultural law and taxation for 2017.  On Monday, I discussed those developments that were important but just not quite significant enough based on their national significance to make the top ten.  On Wednesday I addressed developments 10 through 6.  Today I discuss the top five developments of 2017 – the really big ones.  These are the developments that I deem to be of the highest importance on a national scale to agricultural producers, agribusiness and rural landowners in general. 

Today’s blog post – the top five developments in agricultural law and taxation in 2017.

  • 5 – Federal Implied Reserved Water Rights Doctrine Applies to Groundwater. Water issues are big in the West, and the Federal Government owns about 28 percent of the land area of the United States, with approximately 50 percent of that amount concentrated in 11 Western states (excluding Alaska).  Across the West, most water rights are granted under and governed by state law. Federal law touching on water rights has generally deferred to state law for over 140 years, and the federal government waives its sovereign immunity from state court proceedings involving water rights.  However, the U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized that Native American tribes can be entitled to water rights under federal law, rights that supersede many of these state rights. These federal implied rights are based upon the belief that the United States, when establishing Indian reservations, “intended to deal fairly with the Indians by reserving for them the waters without which their lands would have been useless.”  But, the federal government’s water rights are not limited to its trustee capacity for Native American Tribes, but also apply to national monuments, national forests, and other public lands.  In 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit became the first federal appellate case to reach a decision on this issue, and its reasoning follows multiple state court decisions across the West.  The court first held that the United States clearly intended to reserve water under federal law when it created the Tribe’s reservation. The court noted that the underlying purpose of the reservation was to establish a tribal homeland supporting an agrarian society.  That purpose would be entirely defeated, the court reasoned, without sufficient water supplies held under federal law. Thus, the Tribe was entitled to a reserved water right for the Agua Caliente Reservation.  Next, the Ninth Circuit held that the Tribe’s reserved water right extended to groundwater. It was necessary for the Tribe to access groundwater in the Coachella Valley Basin because surface supplies were clearly inadequate—a reservation without an adequate supply of surface water must be able to access groundwater as well. Thus, the court held that the reservation and establishment of the Agua Caliente Reservation carried with it an implied federal reserved right to use water from the aquifer.  The court also determined that the Tribe’s implied reserved water rights pre-empted state water rights, and the Tribe’s lack of groundwater pumping did not defeat those rights, because they are immune from abandonment.  The court also determined that the proper inquiry was whether water was envisioned as necessary for the reservation’s purpose at the time the reservation was created. Thus, the Ninth Circuit held, the issue of the Tribe’s state law-based water rights did not affect the existence of its federal implied reserved water right.  That right, the court held, always applies as a matter of federal pre-emption, regardless of how a state allocates groundwater rights.  The court’s opinion is significant because groundwater has become the dominant supply of water across the West.  The decision also has important implications for California, the number one agricultural state in the nation (in terms of cash receipts), which enacted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014.  Because the Ninth Circuit’s decision establishes strong (and largely non-negotiable) rights for tribes within California’s groundwater basins, it complicates the formidable task of achieving sustainable groundwater management.  Across the West, the other implications of the decision likely depend upon what remains of basin-wide adjudications of water rights.

                Note:  On November 27, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari in the first phase of the case, allowing the Ninth Circuit’s holding to stand.  Coachella Valley Water                 District v. Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, No. 17-40, Vide No. 17-42, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 7044 (U.S. Sup. Ct. Nov. 27, 2017).

  • 4 - EPA Rule Exempting Farms From Air Release Reporting Vacated.Under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), the federal government is to be notified when large quantities of hazardous materials are released into the environment. Once notified, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has discretion to take remedial actions or order further monitoring or investigation of the situation. In 2008, the EPA issued a final regulation exempting large (commercial) farms (those that emit more than 100 pounds total of hydrogen sulfide or ammonia daily) from the CERCLA reporting/notification requirement for air releases from animal waste (by issuing an annual report of “continuous releases”) on the basis that a federal response would most often be impractical and unlikely. However, the EPA retained the reporting/notification requirement for Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) under EPCRAs public disclosure rule.  Indeed, in early 2009, EPA, pursuant to the EPCRA, issued a final regulation regarding the reporting of emissions from confined AFO’s – termed a “CAFO.”  The rule applies to facilities that confine more than 1,000 beef cattle, 700 mature dairy cows, 1,000 veal calves, 2,500 swine (each weighing 55 pounds or more), 10,000 swine (each weighing less than 55 pounds), 500 horses and 10,000 sheep.  The rule requires these facilities to report ammonia and hydrogen sulfide emissions to state and local emergency response officials if the facility emits 100 pounds or more of either substance during a 24-hour period. Various environmental activist groups challenged the exemption in the final regulation on the basis that the EPA acted outside of its delegated authority to create the exemption. Agricultural groups claimed that the carve-out for CAFOs was also impermissible. The environmental groups claimed that emissions of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide (both hazardous substances under CERCLA) should be reported as part of furthering the overall regulatory objective. The court noted that there was no clear way to best measure the release of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, but noted that continuous releases are subject to annual notice requirements. The court held that the EPA’s final regulation should be vacated as an unreasonable interpretation of the de minimis exception in the statute. As such, the challenge brought by the agriculture groups to the CAFO carve-out was mooted and dismissed.  Later, the court, granted a motion filed by the EPA and ag groups to delay the removal of the exemption until November 14, 2017.  The EPA’s interim guidance on the new reporting requirements was issued on October 26, 2017, but the EPA again motioned for an extension of time to fully implement the regulations.  The court granted the motion on November 22, 2017, staying the implementation of the new reporting regulations until January 22, 2018. The reporting requirement will have direct application to larger livestock operations with air emissions that house beef cattle, dairy cattle, horses, hogs and poultry.   It is estimated that approximately 60,000 to 100,000 livestock and poultry operations will be subject to the reporting requirement.  The reporting level would be reached by a facility with approximately 330-head (for a confinement facility) according to a calculator used by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln which is based on emissions produced by the commingling of solid manure and urine.  The underlying action is Waterkeeper Alliance, et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency, 853 F.3d 527 (D.C. Cir. 2017).
  • 3 – Clean Water Act “WOTUS” Developments. In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) finalized a regulation (known as the “Clean Water Rule”) concerning “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) which expanded the parameters of waters (streams, rivers, ponds, ditches, puddles and other water bodies) that are subject to federal jurisdiction and regulation.  The final regulation became effective in the late summer of 2015, but a federal court stayed its implementation later that year in October. In early 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that federal law placed jurisdiction with the federal appellate courts rather than the federal district courts concerning any challenges to the WOTUS rule.  In January of 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the Sixth Circuit’s decision.  National Association of Manufacturers v. Department of Defense, et al., 137 S. Ct. 811 (2017).  About a month later, President Trump issued an Executive Order directing the EPA and the COE to revisit the Clean Water Rule and change their interpretation of waters subject to federal jurisdiction such that it only applied to waters that were truly navigable – the approach taken by Justice Scalia in Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006).  The EPA and Corps later indicated they would follow the President’s suggested approach, and would push the effective date of the revised Clean Water Rule to two years after its finalization and publication.        

In addition, there were several important WOTUS cases decided/finalized in 2017:

  • COE jurisdictional determination is final agency action; no WOTUS present. The plaintiff, a peat moss mining company, sought the approval of the Corps of Engineers (COE) to harvest a swamp (wetland) for peat moss to use in landscaping projects. The COE issued a jurisdictional determination that the swamp was a wetland subject to the permit requirements of the Clean Water Act (CWA). The plaintiff sought to challenge the COE determination, but the trial court ruled for the COE, holding that the plaintiff had three options: (1) abandon the project; (2) seek a federal permit costing over $270,000; or (3) proceed with the project and risk fines of up to $75,000 daily and/or criminal sanctions including imprisonment. On further review, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed, holding that COE Jurisdictional Determinations constitute final agency actions that are immediately appealable in court. The court noted that to hold elsewise would allow the COE to effectively kill the project without any determination of whether it's position as to jurisdiction over the wetland at issue was correct.  Not only did the jurisdictional determination constitute final agency action under the Administrative Procedure Act, the court held that it also determined rights or obligations from which legal consequences would flow. That made the determination judicially reviewable. United States Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Company, No. 15-290, 136 S. Ct. 1807 (2016).  On remand, the trial court granted summary judgment for the plaintiff on the grounds that the plaintiff’s property did not constitute “waters of the United States” that the defendant had jurisdiction over. The court determined that the government did not establish a “significant nexus” under the Rapanos standard between the plaintiff’s property and the Red River 93 miles away that the defendant claimed were connected via ditches and seasonal tributaries. The court also determined that the Jurisdictional Determination was not based on the “significant nexus” standard of Rapanos and was arbitrary and capricious. The court entered an injunction that ordered the defendant to not assert jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s property. In doing so, the court determined that the defendant had an adequate chance to develop a record which negated a remand back to the defendant to address the evidentiary inadequacies. Hawkes Co., Inc., et al. v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, No. 13-107 ADM/TNL, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10680 (D. Min. Jan. 24, 2017).
  • Prior Converted Cropland Exception to CWA Jurisdiction Inapplicable.The plaintiff, a developer, obtained title to a 100-acre tract on the southeast side of Chicago metro area in 1995. The defendant claimed federal jurisdiction over water on a portion of the property on the basis that the “wetland” drained via a storm sewer pipe to a creek that was a tributary to a river that was a navigable water of the U.S. After exhausting administrative appeals, the court upheld the defendant’s nexus determination because it sufficiently documented a physical, chemical and biological impact of the navigable river. The court also determined that the prior converted cropland exemption did not apply because farming activities had been abandoned for at least five years and wetland characteristics returned. The court noted that the defendant and the EPA had jointly adopted a rule in 1993 adopting the NRCS exemption for prior converted cropland. The court also that prior caselaw had held that the CWA’s exemption of “prior converted croplands” included the abandonment provision, and that it would apply the same rationale in this case. The court noted that the specific 13-acre parcel at issue in the case had not been farmed since 1996, and that conversion to a non-ag use did not remove the abandonment provision. The plaintiff also claimed that the wetlands at issue were “artificial” wetlands (created by adjacent development) under 7 C.F.R. §12.2(a) that were not subject to the defendant’s jurisdiction. However, the court noted that the defendant never adopted the “artificial wetland” exemption of the NRCS and, therefore, such a classification was inapplicable. The court granted the defendant’s cross motion for summary judgment. Orchard Hill Building Co. v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, No. 15-cv-06344, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 151673 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 19, 2017).
  • Conviction Upheld for Clean Water Act Violations.The defendant, a disabled Vietnam Navy veteran, was charged with multiple counts of criminal violations of the (CWA) by virtue of the unauthorized knowing discharge of “pollutants” into the “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) (in violation of 33 U.S.C. §1251-1388) and depredation of U.S. property (18 U.S.C. §1361). The defendant was indicted for building illegal ponds (nine in total) in an existing stream on two parcels - one federal and one private (which the defendant did not own). The defendant did the work due to multiple fires in the area that had recently occurred and to create stock water ponds for his animals. The government claimed that the ponds resulted in the discharge of dredged and fill material into a tributary stream and adjacent wetlands and damaged both properties, even though there was no tributary from the ponds. Dredged material from the ponds had been used to create the berms and had been placed in and around the streams and wetlands. The trial court determined that the stream at issue was a WOTUS on the basis that the stream headwater and wetland complex provided critical support to trout in downstream rivers and fisheries, including the Boulder and Jefferson Rivers (60 miles away) – navigable waters of the U.S. The trial court jury, after a second trial and the introduction by the government of evidence that it allegedly manufactured, found the defendant guilty of two counts of illegal discharge of pollutants into WOTUS without a federal permit and one count of injury or depredation of U.S. property. On appeal, the appellate court affirmed. The appellate court held that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Kennedy’s opinion in Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006) was controlling and that the trial court jury instructions based on Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus test contained in his opinion in Rapanos were proper. The appellate court also held that the definition of WOTUS was not too vague to be enforced. Thus, there was no due process violation. The defendant had fair warning that his conduct was criminal.  United States v. Robertson, 875 F.3d 1281 (9th Cir. 2017).
  • 2 – Rental and Employment Agreements Appropriately Structured; No Self-Employment Tax on Rental Income.The petitioners, a married couple, operated a farm in Texas. In late 1999, they built the first of eight poultry houses to raise broilers under a production contract with a large poultry integrator. The petitioners formed an S corporation in 2004, and set up oral employment agreements with the S corporation based on an appraisal for the farm which guided them as to the cost of their labor and management services. They also pegged their salaries at levels consistent with other growers. The wife provided bookkeeping services and the husband provided labor and management. In 2005, they assigned the balance of their contract to the S corporation. Thus, the corporation became the "grower" under the contract. In 2005, the petitioners entered into a lease agreement with the S corporation. Under the agreement, the petitioners rented their farm to the S corporation, under which the S corporation would pay rent of $1.3 million to the petitioners over a five-year period. The court noted that the rent amount was consistent with other growers under contract with the integrator. The petitioners reported rental income of $259,000 and $271,000 for 2008 and 2009 respectively, and the IRS determined that the amounts were subject to self-employment tax because the petitioners were engaged in an "arrangement" that required their material participation in the production of agricultural commodities on their farm. The Tax Court, in an opinion by Judge Paris, noted that the IRS agreed that the facts of the case were on all fours with McNamara v. Comr., T.C. Memo. 1999-333 where the Tax Court determined that the rental arrangement and the wife's employment were to be combined, which meant that the rental income was subject to self-employment tax. However, the Tax Court's decision in that case was reversed by the Eighth Circuit on appeal. McNamara v. Comr., 236 F.3d 410 (8th Cir. 2000).  Judge Paris, in the current case, determined that the Eighth Circuit's rationale in McNamara was persuasive and that the "derived under an arrangement" language in I.R.C. §1402(a)(1) meant that a nexus had to be present between the rents the petitioners received and the "arrangement" that required their material participation. In other words, there must be a tie between the real property lease agreement and the employment agreement. The court noted the petitioners received rent payments that were consistent with the integrator's other growers for the use of similar premises. That fact was sufficient to establish that the rental agreement stood on its own as an appropriate measure as a return on the petitioners' investment in their facilities. Similarly, the employment agreement was appropriately structured as a part of the petitioners' conduct of a legitimate business. Importantly, the court noted that the IRS failed to brief the nexus issue, relying solely on its non-acquiescence to McNamara (A.O.D. 2003-003, I.R.B. 2003-42 (Oct. 22, 2003)) and relying on the court to broadly interpret "arrangement" to include all contracts related to the S corporation. The Tax Court refused to do so and, accordingly, the court held that the petitioner's rental income was not subject to self-employment tax. Martin v. Comr., 149 T.C. No. 12 (2017).
  • No 1 – The Tax Bill ("To provide for Reconciliation Pursuant to Titles II and V of the Concurrent Resolution on the Budget for Fiscal Year 2018"). The most significant development of 2017 with the widest impact on agricultural producers, agribusinesses and rural landowners is unquestionably the tax bill enacted into law on December 22, 2017.  The new law establishes new tax brackets, essentially doubles the standard deduction, eliminates many itemized deductions, modifies many cost-recovery provisions and changes the corporate tax rate to a flat rate of 21 percent.  The legislation also creates a new 20 percent deduction for qualified business income from a pass-through entity.  Prior law was also modified concerning cash accounting, the tax rate applicable to commodity gifts made to a non-charitable donee above certain levels of unearned income, the rules surrounding net operating losses, interest deductibility, elimination of the corporate alternative minimum tax (AMT) and modification of the individual AMT, the child tax credit and various international tax provisions.  The new law will create many planning questions and opportunities with the structure of perhaps many farm operations being modified to take advantage of the new provisions. 

Conclusion

2017 was another active year on the agricultural law and taxation front.  It was also the first year in many years where some rather significant federal regulations as applies to agriculture were either rolled back or eliminated.  2018 will be another very busy year.  That is certainly to be the case especially on the tax side of things. 

January 5, 2018 in Environmental Law, Income Tax, Water Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Top Ten Agricultural Law and Tax Developments of 2017 (Ten Through Six)

Overview

This week we are looking at the biggest developments in agricultural law and taxation for 2017.  On Monday, I discussed those developments that were important but just not quite significant enough based on their national significance to make the top ten.  Today I start a two-day series on the top ten developments of 2017 with a discussion of developments 10 through six.  On Friday, developments five through one will be covered. To make my list, the development from the courts, IRS and federal agencies must have a major impact nationally on agricultural producers, agribusiness and rural landowners in general. 

Without further delay, here we go - the top developments for 2017 (numbers 10 through six).

  • 10 – South Dakota Enacts Unconstitutional Tax Legislation. In 2017, the South Dakota Supreme Court gave the South Dakota legislature and Governor what it wanted – a ruling that a recently enacted South Dakota law was unconstitutional.  South Dakota’s thirst for additional revenue led it to enact a law imposing sales tax on businesses that have no physical presence in the state.  That’s something that the U.S. Supreme Court first said 50 years ago that a state cannot do.  Accordingly, the South Dakota Supreme Court struck the law down as an unconstitutional violation of the Commerce Clause.  The legislature deliberately enacted the law so that it would be challenged as unconstitutional in order to set up a case in hopes that the U.S. Supreme Court would review it and reverse its longstanding position on the issue.  See, e.g., National Bellas Hess, Inc. v. Illinois Department of Revenue, 386 U.S. 753 (1967) and Quill Corporation v. North Dakota, 504 U.S. 298 (1992).  If that happens, or the Congress takes action to allow states to impose sales (and/or use) tax on businesses with no physical presence in the state, the impact would be largely borne by small businesses, including home-based business and small agricultural businesses all across the country.  It would also raise serious questions about how strong the principle of federalism remains.  State v. Wayfair, Inc., et al., 901 N.W.2d 754 (S.D. Sup. Ct. 2017), pet. for cert. filed, Oct. 2, 2017.

  • 9 - Amendment to Bankruptcy Law Gives Expands Non-Priority Treatment of Governmental Claims. H.R. 2266, signed into law on October 26, 2017, contains the Family Farmer Bankruptcy Act (Act). The Act adds 11 U.S.C. §1232 which specifies that, “Any unsecured claim of a governmental unit against the debtor or the estate that arises before the filing of the petition, or that arises after the filing of the petition and before the debtor's discharge under section 1228, as a result of the sale, transfer, exchange, or other disposition of any property used in the debtor's farming operation”… is to be treated as an unsecured claim that arises before the bankruptcy petition was filed that is not entitled to priority under 11 U.S.C. §507 and is deemed to be provided for under a plan, and discharged in accordance with 11 U.S.C. §1228. The provision amends 11 U.S.C. §1222(a)(2)(A) to effectively override Hall v. United States, 132 Sup. Ct. 1882 (2012) where the U.S. Supreme Court held that tax triggered by the post-petition sale of farm assets was not discharged under 11 U.S.C. §1222(a)(2)(A). The Court held that because a Chapter 12 bankruptcy estate cannot incur taxes by virtue of 11 U.S.C. §1399, taxes were not “incurred by the estate” under 11 U.S.C. §503(b) which barred post-petition taxes from being treated as non-priority. The provision is effective for all pending Chapter 12 cases with unconfirmed plans and all new Chapter 12 cases as of October 26, 2017. H.R. 2266, Division B, Sec. 1005, signed into law on October 26, 2017.

  • 8 – “Hobby Loss” Tax Developments. 2017 saw two significant developments concerning farm and ranching activities that the IRS believes are not conducting with a business purpose and are, thus, subject to the limitation on deductibility of losses.     Early in 2017, the IRS issued interim guidance on a pilot program for Schedule F expenses for small business/self-employed taxpayer examinations.  It set the program to begin on April 1, 2017 and run for one year.  The focus will be on “hobby” farmers, and will involve the examination of 50 tax returns from tax year 2015.  The program could be an indication that the IRS is looking to increase the audit rate of returns with a Schedule F, and it may be more likely to impact the relatively smaller farming operations.  The interim guidance points out that the IRS believes that compliance issues may exist with respect to the deduction of expenses on the wrong form, or expenses that actually belonged to another taxpayer, or that should be subject to the hobby loss rules of I.R.C. §183.  Indeed, the IRS notes that a filter for the project will be designed to identify those taxpayers who have W-2s with large income and who also file a Schedule F “and may not have time to farm.”  In addition, the guidance informs IRS personnel that the examined returns could have start-up costs or be a hobby activity which would lead to non-deductible losses. The interim guidance also directs examiners to look for deductions that “appear to be excessive for the income reported.”  The implication is that such expenses won’t be deemed to be ordinary and necessary business expenses.  How that might impact the practice of pre-paying farm expenses remains to be seen.  The guidance also instructs examiners to pick through gas, oil, fuel, repairs, etc., to determine the “business and non-business parts” of the expense without any mention of the $2,500 safe harbor of the repair regulations.  The interim guidance would appear to be targeted toward taxpayers that either farm or crop share some acres where the income ends up on Schedule F, but where other non-farm sources of income predominate (e.g., W-2 income, income from leases for hunting, bed and breakfast, conservation reserve program payments, organic farming, etc.).  In those situations, it is likely that the Schedule F expenses will exceed the Schedule F income.  That’s particularly the case when depreciation is claimed on items associated with the “farm” - a small tractor, all-terrain vehicle, pickup truck, etc.  That’s the typical hobby loss scenario that IRS is apparently looking for.

    The second development on the hobby loss issue was a Tax Court opinion issued by Judge Paris in late 2017.  The case involved a diversified ranching operation that, for the tax years at issue, had about $15 million in losses and gross income of $7 million.  For those years, the petitioner’s primary expense was  depreciation. The IRS claimed that the ranching activity was not engaged in for profit and the expenses were deductible only to the extent of income. The Tax Court determined that all of the petitioner’s activities were economically intertwined and constituted a single ranching activity. On the profit issue, the court determined that none of the factors in the Treasury Regulations §1.183-2(b) favored the IRS. Accordingly, the petitioner’s ranching activity was held to be conducted for-profit and the losses were fully deductible. The court specifically rejected the IRS argument that a profit motive could not be present when millions of dollars of losses were generated.  That’s a very important holding for agriculture.  Depreciation is often the largest deduction on a farm or ranch operation’s return.  Welch, et al. v. Comr., T.C. Memo. 2017-229.

  • 7 - Beneficial Use Doctrine Established Water Right That Feds Had Taken.  In late 2017, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims issued a very significant opinion involving vested water rights in the Western United States.  The court ruled that the federal government had taken the vested water rights of the plaintiff, a New Mexico cattle ranching operation, which required compensation under the Fifth Amendment.  The court determined that the plaintiff had property rights by virtue of having “made continuous beneficial use of stock water sources” predating federal ownership.  Those water rights pre-dated 1905, and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) had allowed that usage from 1910 to 1989.  The court also agreed with the plaintiff’s claim the water was “physically taken” when the United States Forest Service (USFS) blocked the plaintiff’s livestock from accessing the water that had long been used by the plaintiff and its predecessors to graze cattle so as to preserve endangered species.

    More specifically, the plaintiff held all “cattle, water rights, range rights, access rights, and range improvements on the base property, as well as the appurtenant federally-administered grazing allotment known as the Sacramento Allotment” in New Mexico. The plaintiff obtained a permit in 1989 from the USFS to graze cattle on an allotment of USFS land which allowed for the grazing of 553 cows for a 10-year period. At the time the permit was obtained, certain areas of the allotment were fenced off, but the USFS allowed the plaintiff’s cattle access to water inside the fenced areas. However, in 1996, the USFS notified the plaintiff that cattle were not permitted to graze inside the fenced areas, but then later allowed temporary grazing due to existing drought conditions. In 1998, the USFS barred the plaintiff from grazing cattle inside the fenced areas, but then reissued the permit in 1999 allowing 553 cattle to graze the allotment for 10 years subject to cancellation or modification as necessary. The permit also stated that “livestock use” was not permitted inside the fenced area. In 2001, the USFS denied the plaintiff’s request to pipe water from the fenced area for cattle watering and, in 2002, the USFS ordered the plaintiff to remove cattle that were grazing within the fenced area. Again in 2006, the plaintiff sought to pipe water from a part of the fenced area, but was denied. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biological Opinion in 2004 recommended the permanent exclusion of livestock from the allotment, and the plaintiff sued for a taking of its water rights which required just compensation. While the parties were able to identify and develop some alternative sources of water, that did not solve the plaintiff’s water claims and the plaintiff sued.

    The court determined that the plaintiff’s claim was not barred by the six-year statute of limitations because the plaintiff’s claim accrued in 1998 when the USFS took the first “official” action barring the grazing of cattle in the fenced area. The court also determined that under state (NM) law, the right to the beneficial use of water is a property interest that is a distinct and severable interest from the right to use land, with the extent of the right dependent on the beneficial use. The court held that the “federal appropriation of water does not, per se constitute a taking….Instead, a plaintiff must show that any water taken could have been put to beneficial use.” The court noted that NM law recognizes two types of appropriative water rights – common law rights in existence through 1907 and those based on state statutory law from 1907 forward. The plaintiff provided a Declaration of Ownership that had been filed with the New Mexico State Engineer between 1999 and 2003 for each of the areas that had been fenced-in. Those Declarations allow a holder of a pre-1907 water right to specify the use to which the water is applied, the date of first appropriation and where the water is located. Once certified, the Declaration of Ownership is prima facie evidence of ownership. The court also noted that witnesses testified that before 1907, the plaintiff’s predecessor’s in interest grazed cattle on the allotment and made beneficial use of the water in the fenced areas. Thus, the court held that the plaintiff had carried its burden to establish a vested water right. The plaintiff’s livestock watering also constituted a “diversion” required by state law.   Thus, the USFS action constituted a taking of the plaintiff’s water right.  Importantly, the court noted that a permanent physical occupation does not require in every instance that the occupation be exclusive, or continuous and uninterrupted.  The key, the court noted, was that the effects of the government’s action was so complete to deprive the plaintiff of all or most of its interest.  The court directed the parties to try to determine whether alternative water sources could be made available to the plaintiff to allow the ranching operation to continue on a viable basis.  If not, the court will later determine the value of the water rights taken for just compensation purposes. Sacramento Grazing Association v. United States, No. 04-786 L. 2017 U.S. Claims LEXIS 1381 (Fed. Cl. Nov. 3, 2017).

  • 6 – Department of Labor Overtime Rules Struck Down. In 2017, a federal court in Texas invalidated particular Department of Labor (DOL) rules under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  The invalidation will have a significant impact on agricultural employers.  The FLSA exempts certain agricultural employers and employees from its rules.  However, one aspect of the FLSA that does apply to agriculture are the wage requirements of the law, both in terms of the minimum wage that must be paid to ag employment and overtime wages.  But, an exemption denies persons employed in agriculture the benefit of mandatory overtime payment. 29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(12)The agricultural exemption is broad, defining “agriculture” to include “farming in all its branches [including] the raising of livestock, bees, fur-bearing animals, or poultry,…and the production, cultivation, growing, and harvesting of...horticultural commodities and any practices performed by a farmer or on a farm as an incident to or in conjunction with farming operations.”   In addition, exempt are “executive” workers whose primary duties are supervisory and the worker supervises 2 or more employees.  Also exempt are workers that fall in the “administrative” category who provide non-manual work related to the management of the business, and workers defined as “professional” whose job is education-based and requires advanced knowledge.  Many larger farming and ranching operations have employees that will fit in at least one of these three categories.  For ag employees that are exempt from the overtime wage payment rate because they occupy an “executive” position, they must be paid a minimum amount of wages per week.

    Until December 1, 2016, the minimum amount was $455/week ($23,660 annually).  Under the Obama Administration’s DOL proposal, however, the minimum weekly amount was to increase to $913 ($47,476 annually).  Thus, an exempt “executive” employee that is paid a weekly wage exceeding $913 is not entitled to be paid for any hours worked exceeding 40 in a week.  But, if the $913 weekly amount was not met, then the employee would generally be entitled to overtime pay for the hours exceeding 40 in a week.  Thus, the proposal would require farm businesses to track hours for those employees it historically has not tracked hours for – executive employees such as managers and those performing administrative tasks.  But, remember, if the employee is an agricultural worker performing agricultural work, the employee need not be paid for the hours in excess of 40 in a week at the overtime rate.  The proposal also imposes harsh penalties for noncompliance.  Before the new rules went into effect, many states and private businesses sued to block them.  The various lawsuits were consolidated into a single case, and in November of 2016, the court issued a temporary nationwide injunction blocking enforcement of the overtime regulations.  Nevada v. United States Department of Labor, 218 F. Supp. 3d 520 (E.D. Tex. 2016).

    On Aug. 31, 2017, the court entered summary judgment for the plaintiffs in the case thereby invalidating the regulations.   In its ruling, the court focused on the congressional intent behind the overtime exemptions for “white-collar” workers as well as the authority of the DOL to define and implement those exemptions.  The court also concluded that the DOL did not have any authority to categorically exclude workers who perform exempt duties based on salary level alone, which is what the court said that the DOL rules did.  The court noted that the rules more than doubled the required salary threshold and, as a result, “would essentially make an employee’s duties, functions, or tasks irrelevant if the employee’s salary falls below the new minimum salary level.”  The court went on to state that the overtime rules make “overtime status depend predominantly on a minimum salary level, thereby supplanting an analysis of an employee’s job duties.”  The court noted that his was contrary to the clear intent of the Congress and, as a result, the rules were invalid.   The court’s ruling invalidating the overtime rules is an important victory for many agricultural (and other) businesses.  It alleviates an increased burden to maintain records for employees in executive positions (e.g., managers and administrators), and the associated penalties for non-compliance.  The case is Nevada v. United States Department of Labor, No. 4:16-cv-731, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 140522 (E.D. Tex. Aug. 31, 2017). 

Conclusion

Those are the "bottom five" of the "top 10" developments of 2017.  On Friday I will reveal what I believe to be the top five developments.

January 3, 2018 in Bankruptcy, Regulatory Law, Water Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 22, 2017

Big Development for Water in the West - Federal Implied Reserved Water Rights Doctrine Applies to Groundwater

Overview

Water issues are big in the West.  Couple that fact with the fact that the Federal Government owns about 28 percent of the land area of the United States, with approximately 50 percent of that amount is concentrated in 11 Western states (excluding Alaska).  Recently, a federal appeals court held that that the federal implied reserved water rights doctrine categorically extends to groundwater.  The court’s decision could have significant implications for the usage of water in the West – a very big issue for affected farmers and ranchers.  It could also have an impact on water policy. 

For today’s blog post, I asked Washburn Law School’s water law expert, Prof. Burke Griggs, to take a look at the recent case and project the important implications for agriculture and Western water policy in general.  Here’s what Burke had to say:

Western Water Rights

Across the West, most water rights are granted under and governed by state law. Federal law touching on water rights has generally deferred to state law, most prominently in legislation such as the General Mining Law of 1872, the Desert Land Act of 1877, and the Reclamation Act of 1902. Since Winters v. United States, 207 U.S. 564 (1908), however, the Supreme Court has recognized that Native American tribes can be entitled to water rights under federal law, rights that supersede many of these state rights. Specifically, when the United States withdraws land from the public domain and reserves it for a particular federal purpose—as for a reservation intended to be the permanent home for a Native American tribe—then the federal government has impliedly reserved sufficient unappropriated water supplies required to effect the purpose of the reservation. These federal implied rights are based upon the belief that the United States, when establishing Indian reservations, “intended to deal fairly with the Indians by reserving for them the waters without which their lands would have been useless.” Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546, 600 (1963).

The Winters doctrine thus reserves water to the extent it is necessary to accomplish the purpose of the reservation, and it only reserves water if it is appurtenant, or connected to, the land that has been withdrawn and reserved. Once established, however, Winters rights vest on the date of the reservation, and are thus superior to the rights of future appropriators; and unlike most state-law granted water rights, they are also immune from abandonment. Because most western states follow the prior appropriation doctrine—first in time, first in right—Winters inserted a substantial exception into the operation of their water rights systems. This was due both to the seniority of tribal rights (which antedate most state law water rights, since most Indian reservations were established in the nineteenth century) and the size of the rights (which are large, because they must be sufficient to satisfy irrigation rights - the usual, agrarian purpose of the reservations). For example, the Winters right of the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas dates from 1834—twenty years before Kansas became a territory pursuant to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and twenty-seven years before it became a State. 

Since the 1970’s, many western tribes have obtained recognition of their Winters rights, primarily through state law water-rights adjudications. The United States holds substantial water rights across the West, not only in its trustee capacity for Native American Tribes, but also for national monuments, national forests, and other public lands. But because the United States generally enjoys sovereign immunity from state court proceedings, Congress enacted the McCarran Amendment, 43 U.S.C. § 666, which waives that sovereign immunity so that the United States must participate in such state court adjudications. Because, pursuant to Winters, tribes frequently hold some of the most senior and largest water rights in the basins at issue, the extent of their Winters rights has figured prominently in these adjudications.  In addition, because groundwater has become a major source of supply for irrigators and other water users across the West since Winters, these state-court adjudications have been forced to address the issue of whether Winters rights extended to groundwater.

For the most part, state courts have held that Winters rights do extend to groundwater. See, e.g., In re Gen. Adjudication of All Rights to Use Water in Gila River Sys. & Source, 989 P.2d 739 (Ariz. 1999). The logic behind such an extension should be uncontroversial, at least from a hydrological standpoint; surface and groundwater supplies are connected to one another. As the Arizona Supreme Court wrote in the Gila case, “some [Indian] reservations lack perennial streams and depend for present and future survival substantially or entirely upon pumping of underground water. We find it no more thinkable in the latter circumstance than in the former that the United States reserved land for habitation without reserving the water necessary to sustain life.” Id. at 746.  State courts and federal district courts deciding the issue of whether Winters rights extend to groundwater have mostly held in the affirmative, or have refused to exclude groundwater from the scope of Winters. See, e.g., Tweedy v. Texas Co., 286 F. Supp. 383 (D. Mont. 1968) and Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes v. Stults, 59 P. 3d 1093 (Mont. 2002); see also United States v. Washington Dep’t of Ecology, 375 F. Supp. 2d 1050 (W.D. Wash. 2005). Wyoming has held otherwise. See In re the General Adjudication of All Rights to Use Water in the Big Horn River System, 753 P.2d 76 (Wyo. 1988), aff’d by an equally divided Court, Wyoming v. United States, 492 U.S. 406 (1989). 

Recent Case

In Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District, 849 F.3d 1262 (9th Cir. 2017), the court held that the federal implied reserved water rights doctrine, first established in Winters, categorically extends to groundwater.  The case is notable as the first federal appellate case to reach a decision on this issue, and its reasoning follows multiple state court decisions across the West.  On November 27, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari in the first phase of the case, allowing the Ninth Circuits holding to stand.  Coachella Valley Water District v. Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, No. 17-40, Vide No. 17-42, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 7044 (U.S. Sup. Ct. Nov. 27, 2017).

Background.  The case arose as a declaratory judgment action (where the court determines the rights of the parties without ordering any action be taken or that damages be awarded) brought by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians (“Tribe”), seeking a declaration that the Tribe was entitled to federal water rights that supersede state law—including rights to groundwater that lie beneath the tribe’s reservation. The most important of these rights, as noted above, is the federal implied reserved water right first established in Winters

The Agua Caliente case was brought outside of the context of a state-court adjudication. Indeed, in many respects, the case does not present the usual facts of a reserved water rights claim. The Tribe’s reservation in the Coachella Valley of California dates to 1876-77, and consists of approximately 31,000 acres interspersed in a checkerboard pattern amid several cities within Riverside County, including Palm Springs, Cathedral City, and Rancho Mirage. By placing the Tribe on the reservation, the United States sought to protect the Tribe and, in the words of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1877, secure them “permanent homes, with land and water enough.” Unfortunately, the Coachella Valley receives less than six inches of precipitation annually, and the Whitewater River System—the only supply of surface water in the area— can only provide between 4,000 and 9,000 acre-feet of water every year, most of which flows during the winter months. Therefore, almost all of the water in the valley comes from the underlying aquifer—the Coachella Valley Groundwater Basin (“Basin,”) which supports nine cities, 400,000 people, and 66,000 acres of farmland. Given the size of this cumulative demand, it is no surprise that pumping vastly exceeds recharge in the basin by 240,000 acre-feet per year. By 2010, the aquifer had become over-drafted by 5.5 million acre-feet. The Tribe, however, does not pump groundwater from its reservation lands. Rather, it obtains most of its water supplies by purchasing groundwater from the defendant water agencies—the Coachella Valley Water District and the Desert Water Agency (“water agencies”). (The Tribe also holds a small surface-water right from the Whitewater River, pursuant to a 1938 state court decree.)

Trial court.  Alarmed by the state of groundwater overdraft in the Basin, the Tribe brought its suit against the water agencies in 2013, seeking a declaration that the Tribe had Winters rights extending to the groundwater supplies in the Basin. In 2014, the United States, acting in its trustee capacity for the Tribe, successfully intervened in the case, and also alleged that the Tribe enjoyed Winters rights. In 2015, the district court held that the reserved rights doctrine applies to groundwater, and that the United States had reserved appurtenant groundwater for the Tribe when it established the Tribe’s reservation in the Coachella Valley. The water agencies perfected an interlocutory appeal whereby the appellate court (the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit) would rule on the issue of Winters rights before the trial concluded. 

Ninth Circuit.  Given the diversity of state court decisions concerning whether Winters rights extend to groundwater, and the lack of a federal appellate decision on the issue, the appeal provided the first opportunity for a federal appeals court to rule on the issue. In a straightforward decision, the Ninth Circuit upheld the trial court’s decision extending Winters rights to groundwater. The court based its decision on three related holdings. First, it held that the United States clearly intended to reserve water under federal law when it created the Tribe’s reservation. The appellant water agencies argued that Winters and its progeny should not apply in this case, because the Tribe has been able to satisfy its water needs by purchase from them.  Thus, according to the water agencies, the Tribe should be treated as any other private water user obtaining its water rights under state law.  The Ninth Circuit disagreed, noting that the underlying purpose of the reservation was to establish a tribal homeland supporting an agrarian society.  That purpose would be entirely defeated, the court reasoned, without sufficient water supplies held under federal law. Thus, the Tribe was entitled to a reserved water right for the Agua Caliente Reservation. 

Next, the Ninth Circuit held that the Tribe’s Winters right extended to groundwater. In so holding, the court cited the Arizona Supreme Court’s holding in the Gila River case.   It was necessary for the Tribe to access groundwater in the Coachella Valley Basin because surface supplies were clearly inadequate—a reservation without an adequate supply of surface water must be able to access groundwater as well. Thus, the court held that the reservation and establishment of the Agua Caliente Reservation carried with it an implied federal reserved right to use water from the aquifer.

Neither of the Ninth Circuit’s first two holdings seems controversial, given the logic and the scope of Winters and its progeny.  However, the third and final holding addressed a more complicated issue: how the Tribe’s Winters right exists in relation to water rights recognized under California state water law. California (like Nebraska and Arizona, to name two) follows the reasonable use/correlative rights doctrine for groundwater.  At the Ninth Circuit, the water agencies argued that the Tribe’s state law water rights rendered its claim for Winters rights unnecessary.  Their argument was layered: 1) because the Tribe enjoys correlative water rights under California law; and 2) because the Tribe has not drilled for water under the Agua Caliente Reservation; and 3) because the Tribe held some (but not sufficient) surface water rights under state law pursuant to the 1938 state court adjudication of the Whitewater River, then the Tribe, according to the water agencies, did not need a federal reserved right to prevent the purposes of the reservation from being entirely defeated. The Ninth Circuit rebuffed the agencies’ argument.  It determined that 1) the Tribe’s Winters rights pre-empted state water rights; 2) the Tribe’s lack of groundwater pumping did not defeat those Winters rights, because they are immune from abandonment; and 3) the proper inquiry was not one of current necessity, but whether water was envisioned as necessary for the reservation’s purpose at the time the reservation was created. Thus, the Ninth Circuit held, the issue of the Tribe’s state law-based water rights did not affect the existence of its Winters water right. In sum, the Ninth Circuit’s analysis produced a categorical holding: Winters always applies as a matter of federal pre-emption, regardless of how a state allocates groundwater rights.

Supreme Court Review?

The Ninth Circuit’s decision provoked substantial amicus participation on appeal to the Supreme Court. States as legally diverse as Minnesota and Nevada, as well as property-rights advocacy groups such as the Pacific Legal Foundation, submitted amicus briefs. Both the appellants and the amici supporting them made two general arguments in opposition to the Ninth Circuit’s holding:  1) that Winters should be limited to surface water supplies governed by state-law prior appropriation regimes (such as Montana, where Winters originated); and 2) that the Ninth Circuit’s holding will interfere with and even take long-established groundwater rights secured under state law. The Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari, like all of its denials, did not give its reasons.

Conclusion

The arguments involved Agua are important arguments to make, especially as groundwater has become the dominant supply of water across the West. However, the logic of Winters presents formidable obstacles to limiting its scope to surface water supplies only—especially in the Coachella Valley and other desert basins which lack substantial surface water supplies. The Court’s denial of certiorari has allowed the Ninth Circuit’s decision to stand.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision also has important implications for California, which enacted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014, an ambitious act that requires local “groundwater sustainability agencies” to establish sustainable groundwater management plans during the next decade or so. Because the Ninth Circuit’s decision establishes strong (and largely non-negotiable) rights for tribes within California’s groundwater basins, it probably complicates the already formidable task of achieving the necessary goal of groundwater management at the level of sustainability.

Across the West, the other implications of the decision likely depend upon what remains the primary vehicle through which tribal rights are clearly established: basin-wide adjudications of water rights undertaken in state courts pursuant to the McCarran Amendment.

P.S.  Absent anything of major significance in the ag law and tax world next week, this is the final post of 2017.  However, that doesn’t mean that I will be sitting idly by.  I will be continuing to prep two courses for the spring semester – one for the law school and one for Kansas State University.  I will also be updating my treatise for the changes triggered by the new tax law and other relevant developments, and preparing materials for the Jan. 10 seminar/webinar on the new tax law.  In addition, travel begins on Jan. 4 as I head for engagements in Illinois and Tennessee before the Jan. 10 event.  Radio and TV interviews also continue as usual next week.  The next post is scheduled for January 1 and will be Part 1 of the top ten ag law and tax developments of 2017. 

To all of my readers, have a wonderful Christmas with your families!  See you on January 1.

December 22, 2017 in Water Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Business of Agriculture – Upcoming CLE Symposium

Overview

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

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

Symposium Topics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Monday, July 31, 2017

Agricultural Law in a Nutshell

Overview

Today's post is a deviation from my normal posting on an aspect of agricultural law and tax that you can use in your practice or business.  That’s because I have a new book that is now available that you might find useful as a handbook or desk reference.  Thanks to West Academic Publishing, my new book “Agricultural Law in a Nutshell,” is now available.  Today’s post promotes the new book and provides you with the link to get more information on how to obtain you copy.

Content

The Nutshell is taken from my larger textbook/casebook on agricultural law that is used in classrooms across the country.  Ten of those 15 chapters are contained in the Nutshell, including some of the most requested chapters from my larger book – contracts, civil liabilities and real property.  Also included are chapters on environmental law, water law and cooperatives.  Bankruptcy, secured transactions, and regulatory law round out the content, along with an introductory chapter.  Not included in this Nutshell are the income tax, as well as the estate and business planning topics.   Those remain in my larger book, and are updated twice annually along with the other chapters found there. 

Style

The Nutshell is designed as a concise summary of the most important issues facing agricultural producers, agribusinesses and their professional advisors.  Farmers, ranchers, agribusinesses, legal advisors and students will find it helpful.  It’s soft cover and easy to carry.

Rural Law Program

The Nutshell is another aspect of Washburn Law School’s Rural Law Program.  This summer, the Program placed numerous students as interns with law firms in western Kansas.  The feedback has been tremendous and some lawyers have already requested to be on the list to get a student for next summer.  Students at Washburn Law can take numerous classes dealing with agricultural issues.  We are also looking forward to our upcoming Symposium with Kansas State University examining the business of agriculture and the legal and economic issues that are the major ones at this time.  That conference is set for Sept. 18, and a future post will address the aspects of that upcoming event.

Conclusion

You can find out more information about the Nutshell by clicking here:  http://washburnlaw.edu/practicalexperience/agriculturallaw/waltr/agriculturallawnutshell/index.html

July 31, 2017 in Bankruptcy, Civil Liabilities, Contracts, Cooperatives, Environmental Law, Real Property, Regulatory Law, Secured Transactions, Water Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Public Access To Private Land Via Water

Overview

Private property and the ability to exclude others is very important to farmers and ranchers.  Land is typically the largest asset in terms of value that an ag producer owns and much farm and ranch machinery and equipment is often outdoors frequently during planting and harvesting.  Not to mention buildings and livestock.  So, trespassing is a big issue for rural landowners. 

One issue that has popped-up recently in South Dakota involves public access to farmland that has become flooded.  What are the rules associated with the recreational use of water?  That’s the focus of today’s post.

Public Access

In the United States, the individual states own the beds of navigable streams or lakes that flow or exist within their borders, and hold them in trust for their citizens.  Under this public ownership concept, states may license use of the beds or lease rights to minerals found there.  The right of the public to recreate over the bed can be asserted either because there is a federal navigational servitude or because the state has an expanded definition of navigability which allows more public uses than exist under federal law.

Under state law, the public's right to use rivers or lakes for recreational purposes is typically limited to those waters where the state owns the bed.  For non-navigable streams, the title to the bed is held by the adjacent upland owner.  Consequently, ownership of the bed is related to the concept of navigability.  In general, navigability for title purposes is determined by the “natural and ordinary condition” of the water. 

Although a federal test for bed title controlled the rights that states received upon joining the Union, state title tests are still important.  When the states received title to the beds, they had the power to keep or dispose of them.  Before the Supreme Court decisions which required federal law to be used in determining bed ownership, there were many state court decisions.  These tests are still in use today and many conflict with federal law.  When they do, federal law controls for title purposes (under the definition of “navigability”), but state law has been incorporated into this to determine what rights the state retains and what rights were granted to adjacent landowners.  For example, some states keep title to watercourse beds only where there is a title influence.  Other states follow a rule of “navigability in fact” similar to the federal rule.  In these jurisdictions, the state retains title to watercourse beds only if the watercourse is navigable in fact.  The remaining states use other approaches. 

In early 2014, the New Mexico attorney general issued a non-binding opinion taking the position that a private landowner cannot prevent persons from fishing in a public stream that flows across a landowner’s property if the stream is accessible without trespassing across privately owned adjacent lands.  Att’y. Gen. Op. 14-04 (Apr. 1, 2014).  That opinion was based on New Mexico being a prior appropriation state and, as a result, unappropriated water in streams belongs to the public and is subject to appropriation for beneficial use irrespective of whether the adjacent landowner owns the streambed.  Thus, the public has an easement to use stream water for fishing purposes if they can access the stream without trespassing on private property.

There are several other ways states have power over the water within their boundaries.  Under its police power, a state may regulate its waters, whether or not they are navigable under the federal test, in order to protect the public's health, safety, and general welfare.  Some western states claim ownership of all the water in the state, and as the owner, they claim the power to regulate.  Other states limit their control to those waters considered navigable under bed ownership tests.  As a result, state laws on public use of watercourses are a complex mix of cases and legislation. 

The South Dakota Situation

Under South Dakota law, “the owner of land in fee has the right to the surface and everything permanently situated beneath or above it.”  S.D.C.L. §43-16-1.  In addition, South Dakota law provides that (with some specifically delineated exceptions), “…no person may fish, hunt or trap upon any private land without permission from the owner or lessee of the land….”.  S.D.C.L. §41-9-1.  Numerous states have similar statutory provisions.  South Dakota also claims to own all wildlife in the state, including wildlife on private land.  But, hunters cannot hunt that wildlife without the landowner’s permission unless the landowner is participating with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks (GFP) in the “walk-in” program.  Under that program, and landowner can give permission to the public to hunt on the landowner’s property in exchange for a payment from the GFP.  Many other states also claim to own the wildlife found in the state and offer some sort of “walk-in” program. 

South Dakota law, just like the laws of many other states, also bars “road hunting” outside of the public right-of-way.  Thus, by barring hunting over private land from a public roadway, the state is recognizing landowners have “air rights” over their private property.  

But, what about fishing?  In a March decision, the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled that all water in the state is held in the public trust for “beneficial use.”  That doesn’t seem unreasonable – other state high courts have reached the same conclusion.  But, the Court held that the “beneficial use” rule applies to flooded private land (non-meandered lakes).  This became an issue in South Dakota due to excess rainfall in 1993 which caused the formation of large lakes on private land in the northeastern part of the state.  Fishermen flocked to the expanded lakes and the SD GFP didn’t stop them.  The matter boiled over into litigation resulting in the Court’s recent decision. 

The South Dakota Case

In Duerre v. Hepler, No. 27885, 2017 S.D. LEXIS 29 (S.D. Sup. Ct. Mar. 15, 2017), landowners sued the SD GFP for declaratory and injunctive relief concerning the public’s right to use the waters and ice overlying the landowners’ private property for recreational purposes.  As noted above, in 1993, excessive rainfall submerged portions of the landowners’ property. In accordance with instructions from the United States Surveyor General’s Office, commissioned surveyors surveyed bodies of water in SD in the late 1800s. Pursuant to those survey instructions, if a body of water was 40 acres or less or shallow or likely to dry up or be greatly reduced by evaporation, drainage or other causes, surveyors were not to draw meander lines around the body of water but include it as land available for settlement.  The meander lines delineated the water body for the purpose of measuring the property that abuts the water.   When originally surveyed, the lands presently in question were small sized sloughs that were not meandered. Thus, the landowners owned the lakebeds under them. The 1993 flooding resulted in the sloughs expanding in size to over 1,000 acres each. The public started using the sloughs in 2001 and established villages of ice shacks, etc. In the spring and fall, boats would launch in to the waters via county roads. After the landowners complained to the GFP about trash, noise and related issues, the GFP determined that the public could use the waters if they entered them without trespassing.  That’s sounds exactly like the New Mexico Attorney General opinion in 2014. 

In 2014, the landowners sued. The trial court certified a defendant class to include those individuals who used or intended to use the floodwaters for recreational purposes, appointing the Secretary of the GFP as the class representative. On cross motions for summary judgment, the trial court entered declaratory and injunctive relief against the defendants. The trial court held that the public had no right of entry onto the water or ice without a landowner’s permission, and entered a permanent injunction in favor of the landowners.

On appeal, the South Dakota Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s decision to certify the class and include non-residents users in the class. The Court also upheld the trial court’s determination that the landowners had established the elements necessary for class certification and that the GFP Secretary was the appropriate class representative. The Court also upheld the trial court’s grant of declaratory relief to the landowners, noting that prior caselaw had left the matter up to the legislature and the legislature had not yet enacted legislation dealing with the issue. The legislature had neither declared that the public must obtain permission from private landowners, nor declared that the public’s right to use waters of the State includes the right to use waters for recreational purposes.

The Court remanded the order of declaratory relief and modified it to direct the legislature to determine whether the public can enter or use any of the water or ice located on the landowners’ property for any recreational use. As for the injunctive relief, the Court modified the trial court’s order to state that the GFP was barred from facilitating public access to enter or use the bodies of water or ice on the landowners’ property for any recreational purpose. 

Conclusion

In short, the SD Supreme Court found that neither the GFP nor the landowners have a superior property right, but that the issue is up to the legislature to determine if recreation is a “beneficial use.”  The issue is not just an important one for landowners in South Dakota.  State rules for determining access rights to private property are important in every state.  It certainly seems like a reasonable solution could be reached in South Dakota to protect private property rights while simultaneously providing reasonable access for fishermen.  Time will tell.

April 18, 2017 in Water Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 17, 2017

Kansas Water Law - Reactions to and Potential Consequences of the Garetson decision

Overview

Last week I posted a summary of a recent Kansas county district court decision on remand that involved the prior appropriation doctrine.  The summary contained the thoughts of my colleague at the Washburn University School of law, Prof. Burke Griggs  That post discussed  the Haskell County District Court’s recent decision in Garetson Bros. v. American Warrior et al., (Dist. Ct. No. 2012-CV-09), in which the court protected a senior vested water right from impairment by issuing a permanent injunction prohibiting two junior wells from pumping.  From a purely judicial standpoint, the case is not complicated.  It stands for the proposition that Kansas water law—specifically the prior appropriation doctrine—means what it says: first in time is first in right, and owners of senior wells impaired by junior water rights are entitled to injunctive protections, unqualified by mitigating economic factors.

Today, in part two of the discussion, Prof. Griggs discusses what could be the consequences of the court’s decision. 

The Prior Appropriation Doctrine

Westerners supposedly love the prior appropriation doctrine: like frontier whiskey, it is clear and works quickly, even if its effects can be rather harsh. As the Colorado Court of Appeals pointed out long ago in Armstrong v. Larimer County Ditch Co. (27 P. 235, 237 (1891)), the seniors-take-all approach of the prior appropriation doctrine works better than the fair and balanced equities-based approach of eastern water law: it works better because there is not enough water to supply all rights in dry years, and sharing the shortage would make all water rights owners so short of water that no one could make productive use of their share. In the West, as Frank Trelease memorably wrote, “priority is equity.”

If only the issue were that simple. While the clarity of the prior appropriation doctrine shines through the legal decisions in the Garetson case (and especially the earlier and largely controlling opinion in Garetson Bros. v. Am. Warrior, Inc., 347 P.3d 687 (2015)), hydrological, administrative, and political considerations are increasingly clouding that doctrinal clarity.

Hydrological considerations.  Garetson is a conflict between rival irrigators who access the non-renewable waters of the Ogallala Aquifer.  But, there is also a conflict with groundwater that raises certain hard problems for the prior appropriation doctrine. When the chief engineer shuts off (or “administers”) junior water rights to a stream or river system, the effect of that administration is typically clear and immediate; water prevented from reaching a junior’s canal headgate flows down to supply a senior’s. The administration of rights in an alluvial groundwater system—where the wells are close to the river—has similarly prompt and predictable effects. The Ogallala is different: because its supplies are dispersed and non-renewable, it is not always easy to determine with precision how the groundwater pumping of junior rights in a water rights neighborhood affects or impairs the pumping of a senior right. The architects of the original 1945 Kansas Water Appropriation Act (“KWAA”) recognized this hydrological difference, but deliberately decided to extend the doctrine to groundwater—including the supplies of the Ogallala. The KWAA softened the standards for granting new rights to the Ogallala, but clearly maintained the priority rule for protecting existing rights. The 1957 revisions to the KWAA were focused on allowing the development of new Ogallala water rights, and the chief engineers did their statutory duty: because water was available for rights under these softer standards, more water rights were granted to the Ogallala than the aquifer could durably sustain. As a consequence, by 1970 or so, groundwater depletion was becoming a serious problem. The Kansas Division of Water Resources (“DWR”) responded to this hydrological problem by developing procedures (at K.A.R. 5-4-1 and 5-4-1a) which set forth the process by which DWR investigates and determines impairment complaints in a groundwater system. Despite these procedures, however, a hard hydrological fact of the Ogallala remains: in order to fully protect one groundwater right to the Ogallala, it may be necessary to shut down many junior rights, more rights than are administered in a typical surface water rights administration. This is the principal reason why so few impairment complaints have been filed over the Ogallala. Owners of senior water rights know their rights, but they also know that the administration of junior rights may affect many of their neighbors—as well as junior rights which they themselves own.

Administrative difficulties. The conflict between the legal clarity of the prior appropriation doctrine and the administrative difficulty of determining impairment in a groundwater-exclusive system is one of the central issues in the Garetson case. Although DWR was investigating the impairment of the Garetsons’ senior right, they decided to withdraw their impairment complaint, and took the matter to court directly. K.S.A. 82a-717a and 82a-716 clearly provide a court-based avenue for protecting senior rights, independent of DWR.  Under that approach, the senior right holder can obtain injunctive relief upon a finding of impairment—which is just what the Garetsons obtained. However, it is important to note that the facts in Garetson are somewhat unusual.   The court was able to use hydrological data along with data concerning pumping effects which DWR and the Kansas Geological Survey had produced during the time in which the Garetsons were pursuing the administrative avenue of resolving their impairment through K.A.R. 5-4-1a. Without such existing data—and the impairment reports which DWR produced in a very timely fashion in this case—the court would likely not have been able to issue its temporary and permanent injunctions so expeditiously.

Kansas water politics.  Those who lose in court often seek redress in the legislature, and often do so for less money. The clarity of the court’s injunctions in Garetson has promoted a substantial legislative reaction. In 2016, the defendants (American Warrior) and Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District #3 sponsored legislation which would have substantially weakened the ability of senior water rights holders to protect their rights through the independent court-based avenues of K.S.A. 82a-716 and 82a-717a. This legislation did not succeed, but the ongoing importance of Garetson prompted the Kansas Department of Agriculture (“KDA”), which exercises supervisory authority over DWR, to consider a legislative compromise between the administrative-based avenues of K.A.R. 5-4-1 and 5-4-1a and the above-mentioned court-based avenues. Together with major agricultural powers such as the Kansas Farm Bureau and the Kansas Livestock Association, they are sponsoring H.B. 2099. http://www.kslegislature.org/li/b2017_18/measures/documents/hb2099_00_0000.pdf 

Distilled to its essence, the legislation eliminates the two-avenue approach in favor of a sequential one: the senior water rights holder claiming impairment must first seek administrative relief through DWR to protect his or her right; DWR must promptly act upon the impairment complaint; only then, after the administrative process is complete, can the senior holder pursue an injunction in court.  But, this last step might not be necessary, provided that DWR deploys the impairment report in the service of water rights administration.

H.B. 2099 is a classic case of a wide-ranging legislative reaction to a single lawsuit. It raises at least three difficult questions. First of all, is the legislation legally necessary? Not really: Garetson was properly decided, and we have yet to see a snowballing effect wherein thousands of senior water rights owners begin to use the priority doctrine in an ominous way, threatening their junior neighbors. (Such threats would be perfectly legal, albeit impolite.) Second, should a conflict between water users—competing property owners—be completely transformed into a regulatory action in which the chief engineer’s impairment investigation and any consequent decisions about water rights administration are the central issues under judicial review?  Perhaps.  It is, after all, the chief engineer’s statutory duty to investigate impairment and to protect senior rights. That is why Kansas has an administrative system for water rights protection in the first place. But there is a third and troubling question: does the legislation diminish the courts’ undeniable powers to protect private property rights? Influential stakeholders may jealously guard their political clout, and use it in the legislature to obtain the ends they seek; but the courts are just as jealous and protective of their independent powers to resolve property disputes and to protect property rights, with or without the procedures prescribed by H.B. 2099. Moreover, the KWAA provides numerous protections for owners of senior rights, outside of K.S.A. 82a-716 and 82a-717a. Even if H.B. 2099 were to be enacted, the courts might cite those and other protections to circumvent it—including protections available under the Kansas Judicial Relief Act. They have done it before in construing the scope of the KWAA.

Conclusion

In sum, the Kansas water rights community is again facing a choice: whether to accept the consequences of prior appropriation in a groundwater context, or to attenuate those consequences by limiting the options of senior water rights holders to protect their private property rights. In this they are only human.  As St. Augustine famously wrote, “please Lord, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”

February 17, 2017 in Water Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Prior Appropriation – First in Time, First in Right

Overview

Water has a significant influence on agriculture in the United States.  Over time, different systems for allocating water have developed.  Most of the United States west of the 100th Meridian utilizes the prior appropriation system for purposes of allocating water.  The prior appropriation system is based on a recognition that water is more scarce, and establishes rights to water based on when water is first put to a beneficial use.  The doctrine grants to the individual first placing available water to a beneficial use, the right to continue to use the water against subsequent claimants.  Thus, the doctrine is referred to as a “first in time, first in right” system of water allocation. The oldest water right on a stream is supplied with the available water to the point at which its state-granted right is met, and then the next oldest right is supplied with the available water and so on until the available supply is exhausted.  In order for a particular landowner to determine whether such person has a prior right as against another person, it is necessary to trace back to the date at which a landowner's predecessor in interest first put water to a beneficial use.  The senior appropriator, in the event of dry conditions, has the right to use as much water as desired up to the established right of the claimant to the exclusion of all junior appropriators. 

Water rights in a majority of the prior appropriation states are acquired and evidenced by a permit system that largely confirms the original doctrine of prior appropriation.  The right to divert and make consumptive use of water from a watercourse under the prior appropriation system is typically acquired by making a claim, under applicable procedure, and by diverting the water to beneficial use.  The “beneficial use” concept is basic; a non-useful appropriation is of no effect.  What constitutes a beneficial use depends upon the facts of each particular case.

As applied to groundwater, the prior appropriation doctrine holds that the person who first puts groundwater to a beneficial use has a priority right over other persons subsequently desiring the same water.  This doctrine is applied in many western states that also follow the prior appropriation doctrine with respect to surface water.  In many of these states, appropriation rights are administered through a state-run permit system.

A water dispute testing the application of the prior appropriation doctrine to groundwater rights in western Kansas had a recent significant development.  Today’s post explaining the case are the thoughts of Professor Burke Griggs of Washburn School of Law.  Prof. Griggs is part of our Rural Law Program at the law school.  Before joining the law school in 2016, Prof. Griggs   represented the State of Kansas in federal and interstate water matters, and has advised Kansas' natural resources agencies on matters of natural resources law and policy. He has also been engaged in the private practice of law. 

Facts of the Case

On February 1, 2017, the Haskell County Kansas District Court issued its latest decision in Garetson Bros. v. American Warrior et al., (Dist. Ct. No. 2012-CV-09).  The case involves a longstanding dispute between rival groundwater pumpers in southwestern Kansas (just west of the 100th Meridian). Applying a fundamental principle of Kansas water law—first in time, first in right— the court protected the plaintiffs’ senior well and groundwater right from impairment by issuing a permanent injunction prohibiting the use of the defendants’ junior rights.  Although the case stands for the simple proposition that the prior appropriation doctrine grants senior rights holders the right to enjoin junior groundwater diversions which are impairing their senior rights, the court’s application of the doctrine to groundwater rights which access the Ogallala Aquifer may well produce regulatory and political reactions that are anything but simple.  

In terms of Kansas water law, the case is relatively straightforward. The Garetsons own a senior, vested (pre-1945) groundwater right, which depends on the same local source of groundwater supply as two neighboring and junior groundwater rights held by American Warrior, an oil and gas production company.  In 2005, the Garetsons filed an impairment complaint with the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s Division of Water Resources (DWR), so that DWR could investigate and resolve the dispute according to K.A.R. § 5-4-1a, which sets forth a detailed procedure for addressing impairment complaints for water from Ogallala Aquifer water sources.  For reasons not set forth in the decision, the Garetsons withdrew their complaint in 2007, but later in 2012 sued to obtain an injunction against American Warrior’s pumping, claiming a senior water right under the Kansas Water Appropriation Act (“KWAA”).  In November of that year, the trial court appointed the DWR as a fact-finder pursuant to the limited reference procedure set forth at K.S.A. § 82a-725.  The DWR filed its first report on April 1, 2013, which found that the Garetson well was being impaired by the two American Warrior wells.  Based on the DWR’s uncontested finding of impairment, the Garetsons obtained a preliminary injunction shortly thereafter. After several rounds of motion pleading, the DWR issued its second report on March 27, 2014, also finding impairment, and the court issued a second temporary injunction on May 5 of that year, ordering the curtailment of pumping from the defendant’s two wells. 

The Appellate Decision and Remand

The defendants timely filed an interlocutory appeal to reverse the temporary injunction.  In 2015, the Kansas Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s granting of the injunction and remanded the case back to Haskell County. Garetson Bros. v. Am. Warrior, Inc., 347 P.3d 687, 51 Kan. App. 2d 370 (2015), rev. den., No. 14-111975-A, 2016 Kan. LEXIS 50 (Kan. Sup. Ct. Jan. 25, 2016).

The resolution of the central issue on appeal effectively decided the issue on remand.  The issue centers on the two distinct definitions of “impairment” under the KWAA. Within the context of reviewing new applications for water rights pursuant to K.S.A. §§82a-711 and 82a-711a, the DWR uses one definition: “impairment shall include the unreasonable raising and lowering of the static water level . . . at the [senior] water user’s point of diversion beyond a reasonable economic limit (emphasis added). However, when the DWR is called upon to protect senior water rights from impairment by already-existing junior water rights, that impairment standard does not include the “beyond a reasonable economic limit” qualifier. K.S.A. §§ 82a717a, 82a-716. Because this dispute concerned the latter situation, the Court of Appeals declined defendant-appellant’s efforts to apply the former definition of impairment, and upheld the injunction.

Remanded back to Haskell County, and before a different judge, the court held hearings in October of 2016. Central to the record in the case were the findings by both the Kansas Geological Survey and the DWR that groundwater levels were declining in the area, and that the defendants’ junior groundwater pumping was responsible for substantially impairing the plaintiffs’ senior right. With these principal conclusions established in the record, the court applied the standard test for permanent injunctions, and found that a permanent injunction should issue in this case. In making that finding, the trial court judge followed the “ordinary definition of impair” [pursuant to K.S.A. §§ 82a-716 and 82a-717] which the legislature intended should apply in situations such as this, where the senior right holder seeks injunctive relief to protect against diversions by junior water right holders, when the diversion “diminishes, weakens, or injures the prior right.”  In deciding that an injunction against the defendant’s junior rights should issue, the court declined to adopt a remedy suggested by the DWR in its second report—that the junior water rights surrounding Garetson’s (including those owned by non-parties) could be allowed to operate on a limited and rotating basis. In declining to adopt that remedy, the court stressed that it “does not wish to draft an order that would micro-manage future use” by the junior rights.

Conclusion

The prior appropriation doctrine means what it says when it comes to protecting senior water rights to the Ogallala Aquifer - first in time is first in right.  In addition, “impairment” means “impairment,” unqualified by economic reasonableness. Whether Kansas irrigators and the Kansas legislature can accept such clarity will be the subject of a subsequent post, where we will speculate on what type of legislative reaction the case might provoke.

February 7, 2017 in Water Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 6, 2017

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

Overview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

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

Overview

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Most Important Agricultural Law and Tax Developments of 2016

Overview

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

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

Almost, But Not Quite

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

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

Conclusion

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

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