Author Archives: Peggy Hall

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OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program

Limiting Liability on the Farm: An Overview of Ohio’s LLC Laws

Written by Chris Hogan, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program

The Agricultural and Food Law Consortium is holding a webinar regarding Using LLCs in Agriculture: Beyond Liability Protection this Wednesday, August 16th at 12:00 (EST).

The Limited Liability Company (LLC) is a relatively new type of business entity. The first LLC statute passed in Wyoming in 1977. Since then, all fifty states passed legislation permitting LLCs as an operating entity. Many Ohio farmers use the LLC as their preferred operating entity.

In Ohio, an LLC is a legal entity created by Ohio statute. An LLC is considered to be separate and distinct from its owners. An LLC may have a single owner in Ohio, or it may have numerous owners. LLCs combine the best attributes of a corporation and a partnership. Individuals, corporations, other LLCs, trusts, and estates may be members in a single LLC. There is no limit on maximum members.

The Importance of an Operating Agreement

When an agricultural operation chooses to operate as an LLC, that operation must consider drafting an operating agreement. An operating agreement specifies the financial responsibilities of the parties, how profits and losses are shared among members within the LLC, limitations on transfers of membership, and other basic principles of operation.

If an LLC does not choose to draft an operating agreement, Ohio’s default rules apply. Ohio law prescribes default rules of operation for LLCs in R.C. Chapter 1705. However, LLC members often wish to modify state rules to tailor an LLC to their business. Ideally, agricultural operators should draft an operating agreement with the assistance of an attorney.

Single Member LLCs

Every state in the Midwest permits single-member Limited Liability Companies (SMLLCs). A single member LLC is an LLC which has one member or manager; that means that there are no other owners or managers of that LLC. In 2016, Ohio enacted R.C. 1705.031 which states that Ohio LLC laws apply to all LLCs, including those with only one member. Therefore, small agribusinesses that have only one member are not prevented from forming an LLC.

Will a Personal Guaranty on a Loan Affect Limited Liability Protection?

Ohio farmers operating as an LLC enjoy the benefits of limited liability protection. Usually, that means that the debts and obligations of a farm LLC operation are solely those of the LLC. That means that a farmer is not personally liable for any debts or obligations incurred by the LLC.

However, lenders, implement dealers, financial institutions, and others are finding ways around an LLC’s personal liability protection. Those parties are increasingly requiring that the members and managers of LLCs provide personal guarantees. That is, a member or manager of an LLC agrees to be personally liable for a debt or obligation, if an LLC is not able to pay.

A full discussion of personal guarantees and LLCs in an earlier blog post is here.

LLCs are not Invincible

Limited Liability Companies are extremely popular among Ohio farmers. However, LLCs merely limit liability. LLCs don’t create a perfect liability shield, they are subject to a concept known as “veil piercing” where the owners of a company are held personally liable for the actions of the company.

Generally, a person cannot use a corporation to commit fraud on others or to use a corporation as an alter ego for a member’s own personal gain. Plainly speaking, Ohio courts may hold an owner of an LLC liable in certain cases of fraud committed by the LLC or where an LLC is undercapitalized and is not treated as a separate entity from a member (i.e. the LLC is used as an “alter ego”). While this is not a common scenario among farm business LLCs, LLC members should be aware that a business’s status as an LLC will not shield it from liability in all instances.

Carrying Liability Insurance

Many LLC owners consider the protections under Ohio’s LLC laws to be sufficient. Some LLC members are satisfied that their personal assets are sufficiently protected and separated from LLC assets and LLC liabilities. However, every business should have liability insurance. Liability insurance is a relatively inexpensive means of managing liability exposure for injuries and physical damage to a third party. While insurance doesn’t lower liability, it gives the business a way to pay for damages in the event of an incident.

The question of “how much liability insurance should a farm operation have?” is a difficult one. The amount of insurance that a farm should have must be determined on a case-by-case basis. Factors such as farm size, type of operation, location, and other factors impact the insurance needs of a farm operation.

More information on LLCs and other alternative business organizations through the National Agricultural Law Center is here.

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What Should a Landowner do if a Pipeline is Improperly Constructed?

Written by Chris Hogan, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program

Several pipeline projects are crisscrossing the state. While some landowners are just seeing equipment and workers show up on their property, others are seeing pipelines be buried and the land being reclaimed. Some Ohio landowners question whether pipelines on their property and reclamation of the land are being carried out properly.

Safety Issues Related to Construction of Pipelines

In certain circumstances, landowners with completed pipelines on their property can contact the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) with their concerns. PUCO has the authority to oversee safety issues on completed pipelines in Ohio. If a landowner is concerned that an existing pipeline on their property has a legitimate safety issue, that landowner should contact PUCO to report suspected safety issues. PUCO inspectors may issue a noncompliance letter to pipeline companies, if a violation is discovered.

If the landowner specifically suspects that the pipeline company is not following recommended standards and construction specifications, local Soil and Water Conservation Districts or the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) may be able to assist. By law ODA must cooperate with other agencies to protect the agricultural status of rural lands adjacent to projects such as pipelines. ODA publishes model pipeline standard and construction specifications intended to limit the impact of construction of a pipeline on agricultural productivity.

Contract Disagreement Issues (Non-Safety Issues)

If a landowner has an issue that is not related to safety, that issue may be addressed in the easement agreement between the landowner and the pipeline company. A pipeline easement is a contract. Both parties agree to uphold their obligations under the contract. Essentially, the landowner agrees to provide subsurface land and access rights to a pipeline company in return for monetary compensation.

Of course, an easement is much more complicated than that. As part of this contractual relationship, a landowner has the right to request that the pipeline company uphold their duties under the contract. If a landowner doesn’t believe that a pipeline company is following the terms of an easement, the landowner has the right to enforce the agreement. While the landowner may seek an attorney to do this, it may be best to work with the pipeline company first.

Landowners should consider keeping detailed notes of issues as they arise. For example, a landowner may wish to take written notes on and photographs of the property after noticing a construction issue. This may be helpful in presenting the issue to the pipeline company. It may be cheaper and faster to raise the issue with the pipeline company first, before speaking with an attorney. However, if a landowner’s complaints aren’t resolved in a timely manner after speaking with the company, the landowner will want to speak with an attorney to enforce the contract.

What to Remember When Speaking with a Pipeline Company Representative

As a practical note, it is important for a landowner to realize that the workers on a pipeline might not be from the pipeline company itself. For example, if a landowner has an issue with the way that the easement is re-soiled and re-planted, it could be a third party that did the work. Landowner’s should re-read their easement to ensure that sub-contracting is allowed. When a landowner calls a company, he or she should realize that the company may not have done the work, but rather a subcontractor completed the work. Therefore, the landowner should fully describe the issue to the pipeline company so that the company understands the issue. Any evidence, such as photographs or written notes may be very helpful in resolving an issue with the pipeline company.

It is always best to identify potential issues early. Landowners may want to check the progress of pipeline construction on their property as it occurs. If there is an issue, landowners should promptly contact the company. Landowners should check their easement agreement to see if the easement outlines a process to dispute terms of the agreement.

If the contract does not outline a process to dispute terms of the agreement, it would be best for landowners to speak with the construction foreman first, then moving up the management chain if the company doesn’t react favorably. If the company and the landowner can’t come to a resolution, the landowner may need an attorney at some point.

Reclamation of the Land

After a pipeline is buried, the soil and the surface of the land is ideally placed back in its original condition. This process is sometimes referred to as reclamation. The pipeline easement agreement between a landowner and a pipeline company usually discusses how this process will be completed. Landowners and pipeline companies often agree beforehand how the land will be reclaimed after the pipeline is constructed. Pipelines may disturb trees, soil, and waterways during the construction process. These disturbances may impact crop yields and grazing habits in future years. For this reason, landowners may wish to carefully monitor the reclamation process and enforce the terms of the easement.

Living with a Pipeline Easement

When landowners have concerns or questions regarding a pipeline on their property, the best place to start is the pipeline easement. Landowners may have recently signed an easement, or landowners may be subject to a pre-existing easement signed by a previous owner of the property. Current landowners are subject to pre-existing easements, because easements “run with the land.” Old easements don’t typically expire, unless the original easement language provides for extinguishment of the easement under certain circumstances (for example, abandonment the easement).

Pipelines are a common tool for the transportation of natural resources. Many Ohio landowners have pipelines crisscrossing their property. Landowners should raise any pipeline safety or construction issues with the appropriate state agency, and any contractual issues should be brought to the pipeline company. As always, a landowner should pay careful attention to the language of the pipeline easement in determining how to approach a potential problem.

More information on pipeline easements is here.

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Changes to Ohio’s Lake Erie Commission will impact agriculture and Lake Erie water quality

By Ellen Essman, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program

The Ohio legislature recently enacted a bill expected to enhance Ohio’s efforts to address water quality in Lake Erie.  Senate Bill 2, a far reaching environmental bill, contains several revisions to the Ohio Lake Erie Commission (OLEC) and Ohio’s Lake Erie Protection and Restoration Strategy.

The purpose of OLEC is to advise on the development, implementation, and coordination of Lake Erie programs and policies and to oversee the management of the Lake Erie Protection Fund.   For Ohio agriculture, the most important of S.B. 2’s revisions to OLEC is the expansion of OLEC’s purpose to include “issues related to nutrient-related water quality.”  This change reveals a new focus on nutrient impacts on Lake Erie’s water quality and a resulting charge for OLEC to implement the Ohio EPA’s current plan for reducing phosphorous levels in the Lake by 40% by 2025.

Furthermore, S.B. 2 broadens and strengthens OLEC’s role in coordinating and funding policies, programs and priorities related to Lake Erie.  Coordination with the federal government is encouraged, as is consideration of the efforts of Ohio and other Great Lakes states and countries, as well as any agreements between those states and countries and Ohio.  OLEC must also publish a Lake Erie Protection and Restoration Strategy that describes the commission’s goals and its planned uses for the Lake Erie Protection Fund.  Demonstration projects and cooperative research are now acceptable uses of the fund, in addition to the previously established use of data gathering.

S.B. 2 enhances coordination between OLEC and the Great Lakes Protection Fund (GLPF) board by bringing two members of the GLPF’s board onto OLEC’s board, which currently consists of the directors of Ohio’s EPA, Department of Natural Resources, Department of Health, Department of Agriculture, Department of Transportation and Department of Development, along with five additional members appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate.  S.B. 2 requires the Governor to select the two GLPF board members who will serve on the OLEC board.

Changes in S.B. 2 also call for OLEC to develop public education and outreach programs about their work and issues facing Lake Erie and to expand fundraising efforts to support their programs—namely through the promotion of the sale of Lake Erie license plates.  A number of provisions regard the disposal of construction and demolition debris and dredging in Lake Erie.

The revisions in S.B. 2 are likely to better equip OLEC to carry out strategies for improving Lake Erie’s water quality.  Most notably, the new law will shift some of OLEC’s focus to combating water quality problems associated with nutrient pollution, a change that will surely affect Ohio agriculture.

S.B. 2 is available here in its entirety.  Refer to the first four pages of the bill for the revisions to OLEC.   More information about OLEC is here.

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USDA seeks comments on regulatory reform

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) wants to hear from you.   The agency published its “Identifying Regulatory Reform Initiatives” notice in the Federal Register on July 17 seeking “ideas from the public on how we can provide better customer service and remove unintended barriers to participation in our programs in ways that least interfere with our customers and allow us to accomplish our mission.”

The notice derives from the Regulatory Reform Task Force established by President Trump’s February 24, 2017 Executive Order 13777 on “Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda”.   The order requires the heads of federal agencies to evaluate existing regulations and make recommendations to repeal, replace or modify regulations that create unnecessary burdens.

Specifically, the USDA invites the public to evaluate the agency’s existing regulations.  The agency poses several questions and encourages commenters to respond in detail to the questions:

  1. Are there any regulations that should be repealed, replaced or modified?
  2. For each regulation identified in question one, identify whether the regulation:
    • Results in the elimination of jobs, or inhibits job creation;
    • Is outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective;
    • Imposes costs that exceed benefits;
    • Creates a serious inconsistency or otherwise interferes with regulatory reform initiatives and policies;
    • Is inconsistent with requirements that agencies maximize the quality, objectivity, and integrity of the information they disseminate;
    • Derives from or implements previous presidential directives that have been rescinded or substantially modified.

The comment process offers the agricultural community an opportunity to draw attention to USDA regulations that create unnecessary or unintended negative impacts on agriculture.   Considering the wide range of programs and regulations administered by the USDA in areas such as crop and livestock insurance; Farm Service Agency programs; commodity standards, grading and inspections; animal and plant health; and agricultural exports, it’s likely that agricultural producers will have thoughts to share with the agency.   To that end, USDA will accept comments for the next year, but will review the comments in four phases.  The deadline for the first review is September 15, 2017.

To read the agency’s notice and instructions for submitting comments on regulatory reform, visit this link.

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Answering your questions about Ohio’s noxious weeds laws

Noxious weed law questions are common in the midst of the growing season and this year is no different.  Below is a sampling of frequently asked questions we’ve received about noxious weed law.  Learn more about the laws in our new law bulletin, Ohio’s Noxious Weed Laws, available here.

My neighbor doesn’t keep his fence row clear of noxious weeds.  What can I do about it?
First, talk to the neighbor.  If your neighbor doesn’t respond favorably, the second step is to provide a written notice to the neighbor stating that he has ten days to clear the fence row of the noxious weeds.  Third, if the neighbor still doesn’t take action, provide a written notice of the situation to the township trustees, which will initiate a process that could result in the trustees determining that there is a valid need to clear the fence row and hiring some to do the work.  Your neighbor will be legally obligated to pay for the costs on his property tax bill.

I’ve been notified by my township trustees that I have noxious weeds on my property.  What should I do?
Be aware that you must respond within five days of the date the trustees notified you about the weeds or the trustees will have the authority to destroy.  Your options are to destroy or cut the weeds or to provide information to the township trustees showing that there is no need to take action.  For example, such information might include showing that noxious weeds don’t exist on the property or showing that plants were incorrectly identified as noxious weeds.

Do I have to destroy my crop if noxious weeds are on my land?
No, Ohio law states that you must only “cut or destroy the weeds” if you have been notified by the township trustees that noxious weeds are on your property.

Noxious weeds are growing in the road right-of-way. Can I remove them myself and charge the township for my costs? 
You may remove the noxious weeds, but you will probably not receive reimbursement for your costs unless the township trustees violated their duty to cut the weeds even after you followed the proper legal process for demanding their action.  Ohio law requires the township trustees to cut road right-of-way weeds in early June and August, in early September if necessary, and at other times if public safety is at issue.  If they fail to do so, you should formally complain to the township trustees in writing or by speaking at a township meeting.  If the trustees still fail to take action, the next step is to file a “writ of mandamus” action that asks the court to order the clearing.  Seeking reimbursement for your work prior to following this legal process is not the proper method for enforcing the township’s duty, according to the Second District Court of Appeals in Mezger v. Horton, 2013 Ohio 2964.

How do I know which weeds are “noxious”?
The director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture conducts rulemaking to designate a plant as a prohibited noxious weed.  The list of plants that the director has formally designated as noxious weeds is in the Ohio Administrative Code and is available at http://codes.ohio.gov/oac/901:5-37-01.

 

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USDA Sued over Country of Origin Labeling Regulations

Written by Ellen Essman, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program

On June 19, 2017, the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA) and the Cattle Producers of Washington (CPoW) sued the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, over the legality of the current country of origin labeling  (COOL) regulations.  R-CALF USA and CPoW claim that USDA’s current COOL regulations do not require foreign beef and pork products to be labeled as such, and that in fact, the regulations allow the foreign meat to “be passed off as domestic products.”  This, they argue, hurts U.S. cattle and hog producers, as well as U.S. consumers.  The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, in Spokane.  In short, R-CALF USA and CPoW are asking the court to rule that the current COOL regulations are at odds with two federal laws: the Meat Inspection Act and the Tariff Act.

 Federal laws relating to Country of Origin Labeling

According to R-CALF USA and CPoW, two laws—the Meat Inspection Act and the Tariff Act—must be taken into account when thinking about COOL.  R-CALF USA and CPoW argue that read together, these two laws require imported meat from cattle and hogs to possess country of origin labels.

The Meat Inspection Act, at 21 U.S.C. §620(a), says that imported meat must “be marked and labeled as required by such regulations for imported articles.” “[R]egulations for imported articles” are governed by the Tariff Act.  The Tariff Act, in 19 U.S.C. §1304(a), states that “every article of foreign origin (or its container…) imported into the United States shall be marked in a conspicuous place…in such a manner as to indicate to an ultimate purchaser in the United States the English name of the country of origin of the article.”

Regulatory history

In the lawsuit, the parties argue that historically, USDA pork and beef regulations did not follow their understanding of the Meat Inspection and Tariff Acts, discussed above.  In other words, the regulations did not require COOL.  The 2002 Farm Bill changed that.  The parties say that the 2002 Farm bill had the “primary effect of requiring” COOL on meat products from animals imported into the U.S. and subsequently slaughtered after importation.

Following the Farm Bill’s lead, USDA changed its regulations concerning meat imported into the U.S. from other countries, including meat from hogs and cattle.  The regulation, found in 7 C.F.R. § 65.300, was finalized in 2009.  It stated that meat “derived from an animal that was slaughtered in another country shall retain [its] origin, as declared to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the time the product entered the United States, through retail sale,” or sale to the end consumer.  Therefore, COOL was required on meat imported into the U.S. The regulation also allowed for the “origin declaration” on labels to “include more specific location information related to production steps.”   This meant that the labels for beef and pork could include where the animals were born, raised, and slaughtered.

World Trade Organization decision and change to regulations

After the new COOL regulations went into place, they were challenged by Canada and Mexico.  The World Trade Organization (WTO) ultimately sided with Canada and Mexico.  WTO’s reasoning for this decision is outlined in a Congressional Research Service Report on the dispute, and was based on their finding that “COOL treats imported livestock less favorably than U.S. livestock.”

Following the WTO decision, Congress determined that beef and pork—both alive and slaughtered—no longer required COOL.  Similarly, USDA removed meat from cattle and hogs from its COOL regulations.  These actions, the parties argue, went too far.  R-CALF USA and CPoW argue that the WTO decision only involved cattle and hogs that were imported live, as opposed to imported meat.

It is important to note that a number of other foods are still required to have COOL, including lamb, goat, chicken, farm-raised fish and shellfish, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, peanuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, and ginseng.  More information on COOL can be found here.

R-CALF USA and CPoW’s argument

Ultimately, the parties argue that USDA went too far when they removed all meat from cattle and hogs from their COOL labeling requirements.  They argue that the WTO decision focused on live hogs and cattle, as opposed to meat from those animals, and that WTO never “call[ed] into question the marks and labels required by the Tariff Act” for meat.  Thus, they argue that USDA regulations should continue to follow the Meat Inspection and Tariff Acts, as they did following the 2002 Farm Bill.

R-CALF and CPoW claim that as a result of USDA’s far-reaching retraction of COOL regulations, “beef and pork from animals in other countries” is permitted to have the “same labels as domestic meat.”  They claim that now, “imported beef and pork can even be labeled a ‘Product of the U.S.A.’” As a consequence of this type of labeling, the parties claim that both U.S. consumers and producers are harmed.

Conclusion

R-CALF and CPoW’s lawsuit heavily relies on the authority of the Tariff Act and the Meat Inspection Act.  Their argument, in its most basic form, is that the two laws require COOL for beef and pork, and that the WTO decision did not ever call those two laws into question.  Therefore, they feel that the change in regulations went further than was necessary to comply with the WTO decision.

The defendants named, USDA and Secretary Sonny Perdue, have not yet filed their response to the lawsuit.

R-CALF USA and CPoW’s lawsuit can be read here.

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CAUV Changes Pass as Governor Signs Budget Bill

Written by Chris Hogan, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program

Governor Kasich signed HB 49 on June 30, 2017, otherwise known as Ohio’s Operating Budget. In addition to setting the budget for various agencies, HB 49 changes how farmland is valued under Ohio’s Current Agricultural Use Value program. HB 49 changes Ohio Revised Code Sec. 5715.01. The overall effect of the changes will likely be a downward trend in property tax valuation for Ohio farmers.

The budget bill prescribes the method for determining CAUV value for land devoted to agricultural use. The law requires appraisal methods to reflect and consider the following:

  • standard and modern appraisal techniques that take into consideration the productivity of the soil under normal management practices;
  • typical cropping and land use patterns;
  • the average price patterns of the crops and products produced;
  • typical production costs to determine the net income potential to be capitalized; and
  • other pertinent factors.

Under HB 49, the Tax Commissioner must annually determine and announce the capitalization rate used to compute CAUV values. The bill directs the Tax Commissioner to use standard and modern appraisal techniques in determining the land capitalization rate to be applied to the net income potential from agricultural use. In determining this yearly rate, the Commissioner must use an equity yield rate equal to the greater of the average of the total rates of return on farm equity for the last 25 years (as published by USDA), or the loan interest rate the Commissioner uses for that year to calculate the capitalization rate. The Tax Commissioner is required to assume that the holding period for agricultural land is twenty-five years for computing buildup of equity or appreciation with respect to that land.

HB 49 requires that land used in conservation programs be valued at the lowest soil productivity type. However, if land devoted to a conservation program ceases to be used for conservation purposes within three years of certification, the land will be valued at its actual soil type for all preceding years.

The Tax Commissioner must publish an annual report of CAUV values that can be sorted by county and by school district. The changes to CAUV begin in 2017, starting with counties undergoing reappraisal for the 2017 tax year. The budget bill, as signed by the Governor, is here—see page 2145 of that document for the changes to CAUV.

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