Justia Agriculture Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Real Estate & Property Law
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The Moodys leased Pine Ridge Indian Reservation parcels for agriculture. The government has a trust responsibility for Indian agricultural lands, 25 U.S.C. 3701(2). The Secretary of the Interior is authorized to participate in the management of such lands, with the participation of the beneficial owners and has delegated some responsibilities to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). BIA regulations generally allow Indian landowners to enter into agricultural leases with BIA approval. Each Moody lease defined “the Indian or Indians” as the “LESSOR.” The Claims Court concluded that the Oglala Sioux Tribe signed the leases. Other lease provisions distinguished between the lease parties and the Secretary of the Interior/United States. Issues arose in 2012. The BIA sent letters canceling the leases, noting that the Moodys could appeal the decision to the Regional Director. Within the 30-day appeal period, the Moodys returned with a cashier’s check in the proper amount, which the BIA accepted. The BIA informed the Moodys that they need not appeal, could continue farming, and did not require written confirmation. Subsequently, the Moodys received trespass notices and were instructed to vacate, which they did. The Moodys did not appeal within the BIA but sued the government. The Federal Circuit affirmed the Claims Court’s dismissal of the written contract claims for lack of jurisdiction because the government was not a party to the leases, for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted because the Moodys did not have implied-in-fact contracts with the government, and for failure to raise a cognizable takings claim because their claim was based on the government’s alleged violation of applicable regulations. View "Moody v. United States" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs challenged a Monterey County ordinance limiting to four the number of roosters that can be kept on a property without a permit. A permit application must include a plan describing the “method and frequency of manure and other solid waste removal,” and “such other information that the Animal Control Officer may deem necessary.” A permit cannot be issued to anyone who has a criminal conviction for illegal cockfighting or other crime of animal cruelty. The ordinance includes standards, such as maintaining structurally sound pens that protect roosters from cold and are properly cleaned and ventilated and includes exemptions for poultry operations; members of a recognized organization that promotes the breeding of poultry for show or sale; minors who keep roosters for an educational purpose; and minors who keep roosters for a Future Farmers of America project or 4-H project. The court of appeal upheld the ordinance, rejecting arguments that it takes property without compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment; infringes on Congress’ authority to regulate interstate commerce; violates the Equal Protection Clause; is a prohibited bill of attainder; and violates the rights to privacy and to possess property guaranteed by the California Constitution. View "Perez v. County of Monterey" on Justia Law

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In this case, at issue was whether the petitioner was entitled to a jury trial under Rule 38 of the Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure. Between 2008 and 2011, Zachary Mason (“Zach”) farmed several properties in Otero County, Colorado. During this time, Zach executed several loan agreements with Farm Credit of Southern Colorado, ACA, and Farm Credit of Southern Colorado, FLCA (collectively, “Farm Credit”). As part of the loan agreements, Farm Credit owned a perfected security interest in some of Zach’s crops, farm equipment, and other items of personal property. In May 2012, Zach defaulted on his loans. As a result, Farm Credit sued Zach for judgment on his notes, foreclosure of real property collateral, replevin of personal property collateral, conversion of insurance proceeds, civil theft, breach of contract, and fraud. The court of appeals held that the petitioner was not entitled to a jury trial because the claims in the respondents’ original complaint were primarily equitable. In reaching this conclusion, the court of appeals ignored the claims in the respondents’ amended complaint. The Colorado Supreme Court found that was in error: when a plaintiff amends its complaint and a party properly requests a jury trial, the trial court should determine whether the case may be tried to a jury based on the claims in the amended complaint, not the original complaint. If the claims against a particular defendant in a plaintiff’s amended complaint entitle that defendant to a jury trial, then “all issues of fact shall be tried by a jury,” upon a proper jury demand and payment of the requisite fee. Here, the claims against the petitioner in the respondents’ amended complaint were primarily legal, as opposed to equitable, meaning the petitioner was entitled to a jury trial under Rule 38. View "Mason v. Farm Credit S. Colo., ACA" on Justia Law

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Dallas Schott, owner of Corson County Feeders, Inc., sued South Dakota Wheat Growers Association (SDWG), alleging its agronomist incorrectly prescribed a herbicide that Schott sprayed on his 2014 sunflower crop. The herbicide was not labeled for use on all of Schott’s sunflowers, and 1,200 acres were destroyed. The circuit court granted SDWG summary judgment, ruling that Schott assumed the risk. After review, the South Dakota Supreme Court reversed and remanded after finding there were disputed issues of fact concerning Schott’s knowledge and appreciation of the risk. View "Schott v. So. Dakota Wheat Growers Assn." on Justia Law

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In 2009, plaintiff Nikola Vekic sought to buy three oyster leases which were jointly owned by Dragutin Popich and his daughters Mary Popich and Helen Popich Harris (collectively “the Popich family”). Although the parties disputed the content of the discussions which took place between them regarding the sale of the three oyster leases, it was undisputed that the Popichs’ lawyer, Roger Harris (husband of Helen), transmitted a letter stating that Popich was “unwilling to do a credit sale.” Instead, Harris drafted and submitted an agreement entitled “Sublease Agreement With Option to Purchase” along with a proposed act of sale to Vekic, who reviewed the documents along with his attorney. Vekic executed the sublease agreement on April 14, 2009, without raising any issues regarding its contents. The terms of the artfully-crafted agreement differed significantly from a typical lease or sublease in that the Popich family transferred all of the rights and responsibilities of ownership to Vekic without the benefit of a formal transfer of title between the parties. Vekic was bound to pay the full $90,000 in “rent” regardless of whether the leases were damaged or were even subject to a complete taking. Vekic could not under any condition terminate the lease and was responsible for fulfilling all of the legal requirements to maintain the leases, including paying the $2 per-acre lease fee to the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. After paying $60,000 of the "rent" owed, the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon well exploded, closing the area where the leases at issue here were located for a considerable amount of time. Vekic paid the Popich family the remaining $30,000 he owed under the agreement in May, 2011. On June 19, 2011, Mr. Vekic exercised his option to purchase, and the parties executed the act of sale, which had been prepared in 2009 along with the original agreement, without any modifications. In the wake of the spill, a class action lawsuit was filed against BP. Vekic filed a claim with the Deepwater Horizon Economic Claim Center (“DHECC”) which included the leases at issue. Helen Harris, also an attorney, prepared and filed claims for the Popich family, informing the DHECC of the 2009 agreement with Vekic and post-spill Act of Sale. A dispute arose regarding which party was entitled to the proceeds from the oil spill settlement for damages to certain oyster leases. The Louisiana Supreme Court disagreed with the Court of Appeal and found that the trial court did not err in accepting evidence beyond the four corners of the contract at issue and did not manifestly err in its factual findings and ultimate interpretation that the agreement at issue entitled the plaintiff to the settlement proceeds for property damage to the leases at issue. View "Vekic v. Popich" on Justia Law

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La Verne Koenig appealed after a jury found no fault in his personal injury lawsuit against Kenneth Schuh and Jason Schuh. Koenig was injured on a farm owned by Patricia Schuh. Koenig bought hay bales located on the Schuh farm. While tightening a strap securing the hay bales to a trailer, Koenig fell resulting in injury. Koenig sued Kenneth, Jason, Patricia and Mary Schuh alleging their fault in strapping the bales to the trailer. Koenig specifically alleged Jason was negligent in assisting him strapping a bale to the trailer and was acting under the direction of Kenneth and Mary Schuh. He alleged Patricia was liable because she owned the land and had a business relationship with the other Schuh defendants. The district court granted summary judgment to Patricia and Mary Schuh before trial. A jury found no fault on the part of Kenneth and Jason Schuh. Koenig argued on appeal: (1) that the district court erred in granting partial summary judgment to Patricia and Mary; (2) the lack of a trial transcript denied him a fair and full review on appeal; and (3) he did not receive a fair and full jury trial. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Koenig v. Schuh" on Justia Law

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Appellees were 34 individuals who owned or resided on properties adjacent to a 220-acre farm in York County, owned since 1986 by appellant George Phillips. Phillips operated his own farm, Hilltop Farms, and leased part of the land to appellant Steve Troyer, who raised various crops. Appellants Synagro Central, LLC and Synagro Mid-Atlantic are corporate entities engaged in the business of recycling biosolids for public agencies for land application; they contracted with municipalities to recycle and transport biosolids, which were then used as fertilizer. Over approximately 54 days between March 2006 and April 2009, approximately 11,635 wet tons of biosolids were applied to 14 fields at the farm. The biosolids were spread over the fields’ surface and not immediately tilled or plowed into the soil. Appellees contended that as soon as the biosolids were applied, extremely offensive odors emanated. In July 2008, appellees filed two similar three-count complaints, which were consolidated; they also filed an amended complaint in 2010. In Count I, appellees alleged appellants’ biosolids activities created a private nuisance. Count II alleged negligence by appellants in their duty to properly handle and dispose of the biosolids. Count III alleged appellants’ biosolids activities constituted a trespass on appellees’ land. Appellees sought injunctive relief, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorney’s fees and costs. In October 2009, after receiving the third notice of violation from the PaDEP, Synagro suspended the use of biosolids at Hilltop Farms, rendering appellees’ request for injunctive relief moot. The last application of biosolids at the farm occurred in April 2009. Appellants moved for summary judgment on the basis that appellees’ nuisance claims were barred by the one-year statute of repose in section 954(a) of the Right To Farm Act (RTFA). The issue this appeal presented for the Supreme Court's review was whether a trial court or a jury should have determined the applicability of section 954(a), and whether the trial court properly concluded the land application of biosolids as fertilizer is a “normal agricultural operation,” rendering section 954(a) applicable. The Court held that section 954(a) was a statute of repose; its applicability, as determined by statutory interpretation, was a question of law for courts to decide. Further, the trial court properly held biosolids application fell within the RTFA’s definition of “normal agricultural operation,” which barred appellees’ nuisance claims. Accordingly, the Court reversed the portion of the Superior Court’s order that reversed the grant of summary judgment for appellants on the nuisance claims; the remainder of the order was affirmed. View "Gilbert v. Synagro Central" on Justia Law

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The Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to promulgate orders to maintain stable markets for agricultural products. The marketing order for raisins established a Raisin Administrative Committee, which requires that growers set aside a percentage of their crop, free of charge. The government sells the reserve raisins in noncompetitive markets, donates them, or disposes of them by any means consistent with the purposes of the program. If any profits are left over after subtracting administration expenses, the net proceeds are distributed back to the growers. In 2002–2003, growers were required to set aside 47 percent of their raisin crop; in 2003–2004, 30 percent. The Hornes refused to set aside any raisins on the ground that the reserve requirement was an unconstitutional taking of their property for public use without just compensation. The government fined them the fair market value of the raisins, with additional civil penalties. On remand from the Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit held that the requirement was not a Fifth Amendment taking. The Supreme Court reversed. The Fifth Amendment requires that the government pay just compensation when it takes personal property, just as when it takes real property. The reserve requirement is a clear physical taking. Actual raisins are transferred. Any net proceeds the growers receive from the sale of the reserve raisins goes to the amount of compensation, but does not mean the raisins have not been taken. This taking cannot be characterized as part of a voluntary exchange for a valuable government benefit. The ability to sell produce in interstate commerce, while subject to reasonable government regulation, is not a “benefit” that the government may withhold unless growers waive constitutional protections. The Court noted that just compensation can be measured by the market value the government already calculated when it fined the Hornes. View "Horne v. Dep't of Agriculture" on Justia Law

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In 2009, 2010, and 2011, the Dowling Family Partnership and Dowling Brothers Partnership (collectively, the Partnerships) entered into a series of cash farm leases with Midland Farms, LLC. The 2012 crop year lease created a right of first refusal held by the Partnerships regarding the 2013, 2014, and 2015 crop years, a right that ripened into an option when Midland received an offer from Clement Farms and relayed the new price to the Partnerships. In 2012, Midland sought a legal determination that the parties had not extended the prior lease. The circuit court concluded that an enforceable contract existed between the Partnerships and Midland, and the Partnerships exercised their right to lease the property for the 2013 through 2015 crop years. The Partnerships were subsequently restored to possession of the leased property. The Partnerships sued Midland a second time seeking damages for being denied possession of the property from August 2012 to March 2013. Midland sought restitution from the Partnerships for the amount it paid to Clement as reimbursement for Clement’s planting expenses. The circuit court concluded that the Partnerships did not suffer damage, Midland was not entitled to restitution, and Midland had unclean hands. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the circuit court did not err in concluding that Midland breached its lease with the Partnerships and that the Partnerships were not unjustly enriched. View "Dowling Family P’ship v. Midland Farms, LLC" on Justia Law

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James and Barbara Hilliard (Vendors) owned a farm in Owyhee County with approximately 3,000 acres of farmable land. They executed written leases of the best farm ground to various farmers who grew row crops. They orally leased to John Clark other portions of the farm, on which he raised hay and grain crops. In 2009 and 2010, Vendors leased the row crop portion of the farm to Lance Funk Farms, LLC. Because of his health, on John Clark became unable to continue farming, and Vendors orally leased to his son Jay P. Clark, Vendors’ attorney, those parts of the farm not leased for growing row crops. According to Vendors, in January 2010 Jay Clark fraudulently obtained a written document purporting to give him a one-year lease of the entire farm with an option to extend the lease for a period of ten years. He then recorded the document in the records of the county recorder, and in June 2010 his father recorded a document claiming to have a 10% interest in the farm. These recordings created clouds on the Vendors’ title to the farm. In November 2010, Vendors contracted to sell their farm to Murphy Land Company, LLC (Purchaser). Jay Clark told Purchaser that he would only vacate the farm upon payment to him of $2,000,000 and payment to his father of $950,000. Because of the two clouds on the title and the refusal of Jay Clark to vacate the property, the parties entered into an amendment to their contract which stated, among other things, that $3,000,000 of the sale price would be held in trust to “be available to the extent determined by a court of competent jurisdiction of the purchaser’s damage, if any, for loss or delay of possession of real estate purchased herein.” The sale closed on December 30, 2010. In early 2011, Vendors sued Jay and John Clark, and obtained a judgment declaring Jay Clark’s purported lease null and void and ordering that John Clark’s recorded claim to ownership of a 10% interest in the farm be expunged from the county records. Then Purchaser filed a lawsuit to have Jay Clark removed from the farm. Clark fought that lawsuit, including filing for bankruptcy protection after Purchaser was granted summary judgment in its action to remove him from the farm. As a result, Purchaser did not obtain possession of the farm until May 2012. In 2013, Vendors filed this action for a declaratory judgment that they were entitled to a $3,000,000 being held in trust. Purchaser filed a counterclaim seeking that sum for the damages it incurred due to the delay in being able to obtain possession of the farm. The district court granted summary judgment to the purchaser after holding that the material portions of the affidavits filed by the vendors in opposition to summary judgment were inadmissible. Finding no error with that judgment, the Supreme Court affirmed the district court and awarded attorney fees on appeal. View "Hilliard v. Murphy Land Co." on Justia Law