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Ohio Statehouse with daffodils in foreground
By: Ellen Essman, Tuesday, April 16th, 2024

The Ohio General Assembly is back in Columbus after the March 19th primary election, and committee schedules are already filling up. Given the increased activity in recent weeks, we thought it was a good time to examine what has happened legislatively this year up until this point.

H.B. 64—Eminent Domain. This bill was first introduced by Representatives Kick (R-Loudonville) and Creech (R-West Alexandria) in February of 2023. The bill’s purpose is to make it more difficult for governmental agencies or private entities to take private property through eminent domain. On February 6, 2024, the bill was updated with a Substitute House Bill 64 in the House Civil Justice Committee.

The previous version of the bill excluded recreational trails from the definition of “public use,” meaning that property could not be taken by a government agency for recreational trails. The current version of the bill narrows this language, allowing for a taking for the purpose of creating recreational trails, but not in cases where the property is not adjacent to a public road and where the property’s primary use will be for a recreational trail.

Another substantial change between the versions involves compensation offers from the government entity to the landowner. In the original version of the bill, a government entity would not have been allowed to reduce an offer made to purchase property before proceedings commenced if the reduction was based on hard-to-discover issues with the property. The current version would exclude this provision, restoring an agency’s authority to reduce offers.

Substitute House Bill 64 would also make changes to compensation and awards landowners could receive if the issue goes to court.

H.B. 197—Solar Development. Sponsored by Representatives Hoops (R-Napoleon) and Ray (R-Wadsworth), H.B. 197 would establish a the community solar pilot program and the solar development program. Under the language of the bill, a “community solar facility” is defined as a single facility with at least three subscribers and a nameplate capacity of 10 megawatts or less, or 20 megawatts or less if on a distressed site. Furthermore, the bill would require The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) to establish a Community Solar Pilot Program of 250 megawatts on sites in the Appalachian region of the state. The bill would also amend the state competitive retail electric service policy to encourage community solar facilities in the state and allow subscribers to community solar facilities to receive monthly electric bill offsets.

H.B. 324—Motor Fuel. Introduced by Representatives McClain (R-Upper Sandusky) and Klopfenstein (R-Haviland) in November of 2023, H.B. 324 passed the House on February 7, 2024 and was referred to the Senate Ways and Means Committee on February 27. 

If passed, the bill would authorize a temporary, nonrefundable income or CAT tax credit of 5 cents per gallon for retail dealers who sell high-ethanol blend motor fuel containing between 15-85% ethanol. The tax credit would be limited to five years or to a total of $10 million, whichever occurs first.

H.B. 327—Employee Verification. H.B. 327, introduced by Representatives Wiggam (R-Wayne County), and Swearingen (R-Huron), had its first committee hearing in House Commerce & Labor on February 13, 2024. The bill would require political subdivisions, private employers employing 75 individuals within the state of Ohio, and nonresidential construction contractors to verify each new employee’s work eligibility through the federal E-verify program. E-Verify is an online program that helps employers verify employees’ eligibility for employment. If the bill were to pass, the employer would be required to keep a record of the verification for the duration of the employee’s employment, or three years, whichever is longer. During testimony on the bill, Representatives Wiggam and Swearingen indicated an interest in possibly lowering the employee threshold, citing Florida’s 25 employee threshold.

H.B. 347—Farming Equipment Taxes. This bill was introduced by Representative Don Jones (R-Freeport) and referred to the House Ways and Means Committee in early December of 2023. Since then, the bill has been heard in committee twice, once in January, and once in February, both times without testimony. The bill would change the way farmers claim a tax exemption on certain purchases.

Currently, when an Ohioan engaged in farming, agriculture, horticulture, or floriculture is buying a product for “agricultural use,” they must provide the seller with an exemption certificate. This certificate comes from the Ohio Department of Taxation and relieves the seller of the obligation to collect the sales tax on behalf of the state. However, the Department of Taxation can later determine that the purchase does not qualify for exemption, and then the farmer would be expected to pay the tax.

H.B. 347 would slightly alter this current way of doing things when it comes to the purchase of certain vehicles and trailers. Under the bill, the purchaser could receive an agricultural use exemption for taxes on these vehicles if the purchaser shows the seller copies of the purchaser’s Schedule F—the federal income tax profit of loss from farming form—for three most recent preceding years. Alternatively, a farmer could obtain a certificate from the Department of Taxation verifying that they have filed a Schedule F for three years in lieu of providing the forms directly to the seller. Notably, the bill states that “no other documentation or explanation shall be required by the vendor or the tax commissioner” to prove that the purchase qualifies for the agricultural use exemption.

The following vehicles and trailers would be included under the bill:

  • Trailers, excluding watercraft trailers;
  • Utility vehicles, (vehicles with a bed, principally for the purpose of transporting material or cargo in connection with construction, agricultural, forestry, grounds maintenance, land and garden, materials handling, or similar activities);
  • All-purpose vehicles, (vehicles designed primarily for cross-country travel on land and water, or on multiple types of terrain, but excluding golf carts);
  • Compact tractors (garden tractors, small utility tractors, and riding mowers).

H.B. 364—Seed Labeling; Noxious Weeds. Sponsored by Representatives Dobos (R-Columbus), and Klopfenstein (R-Haviland), H.B. 364 had its first hearing in the House Agriculture Committee on February 6, 2024.  Specifically, the bill would allow the Ohio Prairie Association and other noncommercial entities sharing seeds to distribute milkweed seeds non-commercially to i members, with the intent of promoting habitats for pollinators like monarch butterflies.

The bill would legally define “non-commercial seed sharing” as the distribution or transfer of ownership of seeds with no compensation or remuneration. Also included in the definition are a list of situations that are not considered “non-commercial seed sharing,” including when:

  • The seeds are given as compensation of work or services rendered;
  • The seeds are collected outside of Ohio;
  • The seeds are patented, treated, or contain noxious weed species or invasive plants.

H.B. 364 also includes a definition of “seed library,” which it defines as a non-profit, governmental, or cooperative organization or association to which both of the following apply:

  • It is established for the purpose of facilitating the donation, exchange, preservation, and dissemination of seeds among the seed library’s members or the general public.
  • The use, exchange, transfer, or possession of seeds acquired by or from the non-profit governmental, or cooperative organization or association are obtained free of charge.

The bill would further exempt non-commercial seed sharers and seed libraries from labeling, advertising, handling, and sales restrictions under Ohio law.

To further the goal of promoting pollinators and habitats, H.B. 364 would make changes to the requirements for maintaining toll roads, railroads, or electric railways. Current law requires managers of such thoroughfares to destroy a number of noxious weeds along the roadway or in right of ways. The bill would no longer require the destruction of Russian thistle, Canadian thistle, common thistle, wild lettuce, wild mustard, wild parsnip, ragweed, milkweed, or ironweed. 

H.B. 447—Property Tax. Introduced on March 12, 2024 by Representative Loychik (R-Cortland), H.B. 447 was referred to the House Ways & Means Committee on April 2, 2024. The bill would modify and expand property tax homestead exemptions, gradually reduce school districts’ 20-mill floor for tax levies and modify the formula for determining farmland’s current agricultural use value (CAUV). The change to CAUV would involve the calculation of the overall capitalization rate for agricultural land.  Current law does not establish a minimum rate, but the bill would do so by stating that overall capitalization rate plus additur shall not be less than 10 percent.  Since a higher capitalization rate results in a lower CAUV value and because the current capitalization rate is around 8%, the change would likely lower CAUV values.

S.B. 156—Scenic Rivers. This bill, sponsored by Senators Reineke (R-Tiffin) and Hackett (R-London) passed the Ohio Senate on January 24, 2024, and was referred in the House to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee on February 6, 2024. The bill would transfer the Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers Program from the Division of Parks and Watercraft to the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves (DNAP) in ODNR. The bill would narrow the scope DNAP’s authority to watercourses designated as wild, scenic, and recreational rivers. Currently, the law is written so that the regulatory agency has authority over areas. “Areas” encompass not just the water, but also the land surrounding rivers. On the other hand, “watercourses” are defined as “substantially natural channel[s] that [are] at least five miles in length with recognized banks and a bottom in which the flow or water occurs.” Thus, agency oversight would be diminished from the river and its surrounding area to just confines of the river itself.

The bill also clarifies that a watercourse designation does not affect private property rights adjacent to a designated river.

Finally, the bill would require DNAP to adopt rules for the use, visitation, and protection of scenic river lands and provide for the establishment of facilities and improvements that are necessary for their visitation, use, restoration, and protection, but do not impair their natural character.

S.B. 226—Agricultural Land. S.B. 226 was introduced by Senator Terry Johnson (R-McDermott) in late February and referred to the Veterans & Public Safety Committee on February 27, 2024. The bill would create the Ohio Property Protection Act, which would include protection of:

  • Agricultural land, defined as “land suitable for use in agriculture,” including the water on the land, airspace above the land, and natural products and products from the land;
  • Any land located within a twenty-five-mile radius of any installation under the jurisdiction of the United States Armed Forces;
  • Any land located within a twenty-five radius of a critical infrastructure facility.

To protect property in the above categories, the bill would make it illegal for the following people and entities to acquire or purchase such property:

  • Those persons and foreign adversaries listed on a registry compiled by the Ohio Secretary of State;
  • A government of a foreign adversary;
  • An individual who is a citizen of a foreign adversary;
  • A business that is headquartered in a foreign adversary;
  • A business that is directly or indirectly owned or controlled by one or more of the above persons and entities; and
  • An agent, fiduciary, or trustee of the above persons and entities.
Picture of utility vehicle.
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Esq., Thursday, March 28th, 2024

Spring has officially sprung, and so have a few interesting legal updates. In this edition of the Ag Law Harvest we cover aggravated vehicular assault in a farm utility vehicle, "Made in the USA" labels, the Corporate Transparency Act's legal woes, USDA's Dairy Margin Program, and the U.S House Committee on Agriculture's Agricultural Labor Working Group's final report. 

Driver of Farm Utility Vehicle Cannot be Found Guilty of Aggravated Vehicular Assault. 
The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled that a driver of a farm utility vehicle involved in a crash cannot be convicted of a felony for injuring passengers because the vehicle does not meet the definition of a “motor vehicle” under Ohio’s criminal code. Joshua Fork of Sandusky County crashed his Polaris utility vehicle while driving under the influence at a party in 2020. Two of Fork’s passengers sustained serious injuries as a result of the accident. Fork was convicted of operating a vehicle under the influence (OVI), and two counts of aggravated vehicular assault. Fork did not contest his OVI conviction but did appeal his aggravated vehicular assault conviction to the Sixth District Court of Appeals. The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court of Ohio. 

In its decision, the Court found that Ohio law has two definitions of “motor vehicle.” One definition applies strictly to traffic laws and the other applies more broadly to Ohio’s “penal laws.” The Court held that the definition of “motor vehicle” that applies to penal laws, such as aggravated vehicular assault, exempts utility vehicles. The Court concluded that because of the utility vehicle exemption and the fact that the utility vehicle’s principal purpose is for farm activities, Fork cannot be found guilty of vehicular aggravated assault. To read more on the Supreme Court’s decision, visit: https://www.courtnewsohio.gov/cases/2024/SCO/0321/230356.asp

USDA Announces Final Rule on “Made in the USA” Labels. 
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) announced the finalization of a rule to align the voluntary “Product of USA” label claim with consumer understanding of what the claim means. The USDA's final "Product of USA" rule permits the voluntary use of the "Product of USA" or "Made in the USA" label claim on meat, poultry, and egg products. However, these labels can only be used if the products are derived from animals that were born, raised, slaughtered, and processed in the United States. The rule aims to prevent misleading U.S. origin labeling, ensuring that consumers receive truthful information about the origins of their food.

Under the final rule, the "Product of USA" or "Made in the USA" label claim will remain voluntary for meat, poultry, and egg products. It will also be eligible for generic label approval, meaning it won't require pre-approval by the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (“FSIS”) before use, but establishments must maintain documentation supporting the claim. Additionally, the rule permits other voluntary U.S. origin claims on these products, provided they include a description on the package of the preparation and processing steps that occurred in the United States upon which the claim is made. 

Corporate Transparency Act Loses First Federal Court Battle. 
As we have previously reported (here), the Corporate Transparency Act (“CTA”) requires certain business entities to file Beneficial Ownership Information (“BOI”) with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) or face civil and criminal penalties. However, an interesting twist in the CTA saga has occurred. A federal court in Alabama issued an opinion ruling the CTA unconstitutional, concluding that the CTA exceeds the U.S. Constitution’s limits on Congress’s power, and issued an injunction against the U.S. Government from enforcing the CTA against the named plaintiffs in the case.  Therefore, the named plaintiff, Isaac Winkles, and companies for which he is a beneficial owner or applicant, the National Small Business Association, and the approximately 65,000 members of the National Small Business Association are currently not required to report beneficial ownership information to FinCEN. Everyone else must still comply with the CTA and the BOI reporting requirements. 

FinCEN released a statement acknowledging the court’s ruling but emphasized that only the named plaintiffs are excused from reporting beneficial ownership information to FinCEN at this time. On March 11, 2024, the U.S. Government filed a notice of appeal of the lower court’s ruling, hoping to reverse the injunction and the court’s decision. We will continue to monitor the situation and keep you informed of any updates to the CTA and BOI reporting requirements.

USDA Announces 2024 Dairy Margin Coverage Program. 
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) announced that starting February 28, 2024, dairy producers in the United States can enroll in the 2024 Dairy Margin Coverage (“DMC”) program. Enrollment for the 2024 DMC coverage ends on April 29, 2024. 

The USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) has made revisions to the DMC regulations to allow eligible dairy operations to make a one-time adjustment to their established production history. This adjustment involves combining previously established supplemental production history with DMC production history for dairy operations that participated in Supplemental Dairy Margin Coverage in previous coverage years. DMC has also been authorized through the calendar year 2024 as per the 2018 Farm Bill extension passed by Congress.

FSA Administrator Zach Ducheneaux encourages producers to enroll in the 2024 DMC program, citing its importance as a risk management tool. The program has proven effective, with over $1.2 billion in Dairy Margin Coverage payments issued to producers in 2023. Ducheneaux highlights the program's affordability, noting that it offers a sense of security and peace of mind to producers.

DMC is a voluntary risk management program that provides protection to dairy producers when the margin between the all-milk price and the average feed price falls below a certain dollar amount selected by the producer. In 2023, DMC payments were triggered in 11 months, including two months where the margin fell below the catastrophic level of $4.00 per hundredweight, marking a significant development for the program.

House Committee Releases Final Report Recommending Changes to H-2A Program. 
On March 7, 2024, the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture’s Agricultural Labor Working Group (“ALWG”) released its final report containing policy recommendations for U.S. agricultural labor. The report includes significant reforms to the H-2A program, many of which, as announced by the ALWG, received unanimous support from the bipartisan working group. The recommended policies encompass creating a single H-2A applicant portal, implementing H-2A wage reforms, establishing a federal heat standard for H-2A workers, and granting year-round industries such as livestock, poultry, dairy, peanuts, sugar beets, sugarcane, and forestry access to the H-2A program.

Help wanted sign in front of corn field.
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Esq., Friday, February 16th, 2024

The U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) has introduced a new independent contractor rule, aiming to provide clarity and guidance for both employers and workers. The classification of workers as employees or independent contractors has become increasingly complex in recent years, resembling an endless carousel ride for many businesses, particularly those in the agricultural sector that frequently hire part-time and seasonal help. The DOL's new rule, published under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (“FLSA”), seeks to put an end to this perpetual uncertainty surrounding worker classification once and for all.

Background
The FLSA establishes federal standards for overtime pay, minimum wage, and child labor. Ohio law explicitly aligns its interpretation of the term "employee" with that of the FLSA for wage and hour purposes. For the FLSA to apply to an agricultural employer, an employment relationship must be established. This entails determining whether a worker is classified as an employee or an independent contractor.

However, the FLSA itself is silent on how to exactly distinguish an independent contractor from an employee. So, for years the DOL relied on the court system to develop the standard for determining whether a worker should be classified as an employee or an independent contractor. The court system developed an “economic realities test” to help determine whether an employment relationship exists with a worker. The economic realities test is a totality of the circumstances test – which means all factors should be weighed evenly – and relies on six factors. These factors are: 

  1. The nature and degree of control over the work; 
  2. The individual’s opportunity for profit or loss;
  3. The permanency of the work relationship;  
  4. Whether the work being performed is an integral part of the Employer’s business; 
  5. The worker’s investment in facilities and equipment; and 
  6. Skill and initiative. 

For decades courts and the DOL have applied these factors, or a similar variation of them, to help define employee and independent contractor under the FLSA. However, courts across the country have applied the factors inconsistently and have given certain factors different degrees of weight. 

2021 Independent Contractor Rule
In 2021, the DOL sought to resolve the inconsistent and subjective application of the factors by publishing a formal independent contractor rule (“2021 IC Rule”). This 2021 IC Rule marks the DOL’s first attempt to establish a standardized test for distinguishing between independent contractors and employees.  

The 2021 IC Rule used a variation of the economic realities test but gave greater weight to “two core factors” rather than applying each factor equally. The “two core factors” are: 

  1. The nature and degree of control over the work; and 
  2. The individual’s opportunity for profit or loss.

In the 2021 IC Rule, the DOL stated that the two core factors “are the most probative as to whether or not an individual is an economically dependent ‘employee’ . . . and each therefore typically carries greater weight in the analysis than any other factor.” The DOL also stated that if the two core factors “both point towards the same classification, whether employee or independent contractor, there is a substantial likelihood that is the individual’s accurate classification.” This is because, according to the DOL, the other factors are less probative and may not be probative at all and are “highly unlikely, either individually or collectively, to outweigh the combined probative value of the two core factors.” 

In other words, the DOL established a rule that looked at two core factors to determine the economic reality of the relationship between a worker and an employer. Thus, under the 2021 IC Rule, the economic realities test looked something like this: 

  1. Core Factors
    1. The nature and degree of control over the work; and
    2. The individual’s opportunity for profit or loss.
  2. Other Factors
    1. The permanency of the work relationship;  
    2. Whether the work being performed is an integral part of the Employer’s business; 
    3. The worker’s investment in facilities and equipment; 
    4. Skill and initiative; and
    5. Any additional factors 

New 2024 Rule
The carousel ride does not stop at the 2021 IC Rule, unfortunately. In January of 2024, the DOL published another rule, repealing the 2021 IC Rule and reverting back to a totality of the circumstances analysis of the economic realities test in which there are no core factors, and all factors are weighed evenly. The new rule, effective March 11, 2024, evaluates the following factors: 

  1. Opportunity for profit or loss depending on managerial skill; 
  2. Investments by the worker and the employer; 
  3. Degree of permanence of the work relationship; 
  4. Nature and degree of control; 
  5. Extent to which the work performed is an integral part of the employer’s business;
  6. Skill and initiative; and
  7. Any additional factors. 

Below is a more detailed analysis of the above seven factors. 

  1. Opportunity for profit or loss depending on managerial skill. This factor assesses whether a worker possesses managerial abilities that impact their capacity to generate profit or incur losses. Relevant considerations include: 
    1. Negotiating pay for services rendered 
    2. Having the freedom to accept or decline jobs 
    3. Choosing the order or time in which jobs are completed 
    4. Engaging in marketing, advertising, or other business expansion efforts
    5. Making decisions regarding hiring, purchasing materials and equipment, or renting space 

If a worker lacks the opportunity for profit or loss, they are likely an employee. 

  1. Investments by the worker and the employer. This factor examines whether a worker’s investments are capital or entrepreneurial in nature. Costs incurred by a worker to perform their job, like purchasing tools or equipment, are not indicative of entrepreneurial investment and suggest employee status. Conversely, investments supporting an independent business, such as expanding capabilities, reducing costs, or broadening market reach, suggest entrepreneurial investment and independent contractor status.  
  1. Degree of permanence of the work relationship. If the work relationship is indefinite in duration or continuous, the worker is probably an employee. If the work relationship is definite in duration, non-exclusive, project-based, or sporadic because the worker is in business for himself or herself and marketing his or her services or labor to multiple entities, then the worker is probably an independent contractor. 
  1. Nature and degree of control. This factor assesses the level of control the employer exercises over the work and economic aspects of the relationship. Greater control by the employer suggests and employee relationship, while more control by the worker indicates independent contractor status.  Factors include the employer setting the worker’s schedule, supervising work performance, limiting the worker’s ability to work for others, using technological means for supervision, reserving the right to supervise or discipline workers, determining who sets the prices or rates for services provided by the worker, and the marketing of the services or products that the worker provides. 
  1. Extent to which the work performed is an integral part of the employer’s business. This factor evaluates whether the work performed is essential to the employer's business operations. It focuses on the function performed rather than the individual worker. If the service provided is indispensable for the employer's functioning, it favors an employee classification. Conversely, if the work is not crucial to the employer's core business, it leans towards independent contractor status.
  1. Skill and initiative. The skill and initiative factor evaluates whether the worker utilizes specialized skills and demonstrates entrepreneurial initiative in their work. If the worker lacks specialized skills or relies on employer-provided training, it suggests employee status. Conversely, if the worker brings specialized skills and exhibits business-like initiative, they are likely an independent contractor. 
  1. Any Additional Factors. Additional factors may be relevant in determining the status of a worker. These additional factors may indicate whether the worker operates as an independent business entity or is economically reliant on the potential employer for work opportunities.

Under the new rule, no one factor is dispositive of determining whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor. For example, a landscaper may perform work that does not require specialized skills, but application of the other factors may demonstrate that the landscaper is an independent contractor (e.g. the landscaper may determine the price charged for the work, make decisions affecting opportunity for profit or loss, determine the extent of capital investment, work for many clients, and/or perform work for clients for which landscaping is not integral). 

What does it all mean? 
In announcing the new rule, the DOL said “[i]t is the Department’s obligation to administer and enforce the FLSA to ensure that workers who should be covered under the [FLSA] are properly classified as employees.” Many seem to suggest that this new rule is more employee friendly and makes it easier to classify a worker as an employee than the 2021 IC Rule.

The new rule, however, only affects a worker’s classification under the FLSA. The same standard does not apply to other federal laws, like the Internal Revenue Code. Nevertheless, those standards used in other federal laws may look eerily similar to the standard used here.  

Lastly, the carousel ride may not yet be over. There are already legal challenges to the new rule that might put the DOL’s hopes of ushering in a new period of clarity at risk (See Warren v U.S. Dep’t of Labor, 2:24-cv-00007, N.D. Ga.). 

Consequences of Misclassifying Workers. 
Misclassifying a worker can come with harsh consequences. An employer that misclassifies a worker may be required to pay unpaid wages owed to the employee, civil money penalties, and/or attorneys’ fees associated with litigation. Furthermore, employers may be held criminally and/or civilly liable under other federal and state statues for misclassifying a worker. It is vital that agricultural employers take classification of a worker seriously because all it takes is one disgruntled misclassified worker or workplace injury to a misclassified worker to seriously jeopardize an operation. 

Sources: 
Independent Contractor Status Under the Fair Labor Standard Act, 86 CFR 1168
Employee or Independent Contractor Classification Under the Fair Standards Act, 89 CFR 1638

 

Posted In: Labor
Tags: Farm Labor, Independent Contractor, Employee, DOL
Comments: 0
Calf standing in the snow
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Esq., Tuesday, January 30th, 2024

Happy 2024! We hope your new calendar year has gotten off to a delightful start. As we close out the first of twelve months, we bring you another edition of the Ag Law Harvest. In this blog post, we delve into the intricate world of employment contracts and noncompete agreements, classifying workers as independent contractors or employees, Ag-Gag laws, and agricultural policy. 

Ohio Man Violates Employer’s Noncompete Agreement. 
Kevin Ciptak (“Ciptak”), an Ohio landscaping employee, is facing legal trouble for allegedly breaching his employment contract with Yagour Group LLC, operating as Perfection Landscapes (“Perfection”). The contract included a noncompete agreement, which Ciptak is accused of violating by running his own landscaping business on the side while working for Perfection. Perfection eventually discovered the extent of Ciptak’s side business, leading to Perfection filing a lawsuit.

During the trial, Ciptak testified that Perfection was “too busy” to take on the jobs he completed. Additionally, Ciptak stated that the profits from his side jobs amounted to over $60,000. Perfection countered that they would have been able to perform the work and, because of the obvious breach of the noncompete agreement, Perfection lost out on the potential profits. The trial court ruled in favor of Perfection, ordering Ciptak to pay the $60,000 in profits along with attorney's fees and expenses, exceeding $80,000. Ciptak appealed, arguing that, according to Ohio law, Perfection could only recover its own lost profits, not Ciptak's gains from the breach. He also claimed that Perfection was not harmed as they were "too busy," and Perfection failed to provide evidence of lost profits. 

The Eighth District Court of Appeals ultimately found in favor of Perfection.  The court reasoned that “[t]his case came down to a credibility determination.” The court held there was no dispute that Ciptak had violated the noncompete agreement. What was in dispute was whether Perfection could have and would have performed the work. The Eighth District held that the trial court’s finding that Perfection could have performed the work was not unreasonable. The Eighth District noted that although Ciptak claimed that Perfection was “too busy” to do any of those jobs, Ciptak “provided no other evidence to support this assertion.” The Eighth District ruled that the evidence presented at trial showed that Perfection would have realized approximately the same amount of profit on those jobs as Ciptak did and, therefore, Perfection was damaged as a result of Ciptak’s breach of the noncompete agreement. 

New Independent Contractor Rule Announced by Department of Labor. 
The U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) has published a final rule to help employers better understand when a worker qualifies as an employee and when they may be considered an independent contractor. The new rule gets rid of and replaces the 2021 rule. As announced by the DOL, the new rule “restores the multifactor analysis used by courts for decades, ensuring that all relevant factors are analyzed to determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor.” Thus, the new rule returns to a “totality of the circumstances” approach and analyzes the following six factors: (1) any opportunity for profit or loss a worker might have; (2) the financial stake and nature of any resources a worker has invested in the work; (3) the degree of permanence of the work relationship; (4) the degree of control an employer has over the person’s work; (5) whether the work the person does is essential to the employer’s business; and (6) the worker’s skill and initiative. The new rule goes into effect on March 11, 2024. 

Federal Appeals Court Reverses Injunctions on Iowa “Ag-Gag Laws.” 
On January 8, 2024, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued two opinions reversing injunctions against two Iowa “ag-gag laws”. At trial, the two laws were found to have violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. In its first opinion, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals analyzed Iowa’s “Agricultural Production Facility Trespass” law which makes it illegal to use deceptive practices to obtain access or employment in an “agricultural production facility, with the intent to cause physical or economic harm or other injury to the agricultural production facility’s operations . . .” The Eighth Circuit found that the intent element contained within the Iowa law prevents it from violating the First Amendment. The court reasoned that the Iowa law “is not a viewpoint-based restriction on speech, but rather a permissible restriction on intentionally false speech undertaken to accomplish a legally cognizable harm.” 

In its second opinion, the Eighth Circuit reviewed an Iowa law that penalized anyone who “while trespassing, ‘knowingly places or uses a camera or electronic surveillance device that transmits or records images or data while the device is on the trespassed property[.]’” The court found that the Iowa law did not violate the First Amendment because “the [law’s] restrictions on the use of a camera only apply to situations when there has first been an unlawful trespass, the [law] does not burden substantially more speech than is necessary to further the State’s legitimate interests.”  The court noted that Iowa has a strong interest in protecting property rights by “penalizing that subset of trespassers who – by using a camera while trespassing – cause further injury to privacy and property rights.” 

Both cases have been remanded to the trial courts for further proceedings consistent with the forgoing opinions. 

USDA Announces New Remote Beef Grading Program.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) announced a new pilot program to “allow more cattle producers and meat processors to access better markets through the [USDA’s] official beef quality grading and certification.” The “Remote Grading Pilot for Beef” looks to expand on the USDA’s approach to increase competition in agricultural markets for small- and mid-size farmers and ranchers. The pilot program hopes to cut expenses that otherwise deter small, independent meat processors from having a highly trained USDA grader visit their facility. 

Under the pilot program, trained plant employees capture specific images of the live animal and the beef carcass. These images are then sent to a USDA grader that will inspect the images and accompanying plant records and product data, who then assigns the USDA Quality Grade and applicable carcass certification programs. The “Remote Grading Pilot for Beef” is only available to domestic beef slaughter facilities operating under federal inspection and producing product that meets USDA grading program eligibility criteria. More information can be found at https://www.ams.usda.gov/services/remote-beef-grading

USDA Accepting Applications for Value-Added Producer Grants Program. 
On January 17, 2024, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) announced that it is “accepting applications for grants to help agricultural producers maximize the value of their products and venture into new and better markets.” These grants are available through the Value-Added Producer Grants Program. Independent producers, agricultural producer groups, farmer or rancher cooperatives, and majority-controlled producer-based business ventures are all eligible for the grants. The USDA may award up to $75,000 for planning activities or up to $250,000 for working capital expenses related to producing and marketing a value-added agricultural product. For more information, visit the USDA’s website or contact your local USDA Rural Development office.

 

Combine in the field.
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Esq., Friday, October 27th, 2023

Agricultural & Natural Resources Income Tax Issues Webinar
Barry Ward, Director, Income Tax Schools at The Ohio State University
Jeff Lewis, Income Tax Schools at The Ohio State University

Tax practitioners, farmers, and farmland owners are encouraged to connect to the Agricultural and Natural Resources Income Tax Issues Webinar (via Zoom) on December 13 from 8:45 a.m. to 3:20 p.m. The event is sponsored by Income Tax Schools at The Ohio State University.

The webinar focuses on issues specific to farm tax returns related to agriculture and natural resources and will highlight timely topics and new regulations.

The program is an intermediate-level course for tax preparers whose clients include farmers and rural landowners. Farmers who prepare and file their own taxes will also benefit from the webinar.

Tentative topics to be covered during the Ag Tax Issues webinar include:

  • Timely Tax Issues Facing Agricultural Producers
    • Employee vs Independent Contractor
    • Cost-Sharing Exclusion
    • Farm Trade or Business
    • Farming S Corporations
    • Timber Taxation
  • Legislative and Regulatory Update
  • Form 1099s Requirements for Farmers and Ranchers
  • Tax Schemes Targeting the Farm 
  • Tax Issues Arriving at the Death of a Farmer
  • Ohio Tax Update

Other chapters included in the workbook not included in the webinar includes: Material Participation Rules for Farmers, Ranchers and Landowners, Livestock Tax Issues, Depreciating and Expensing Farm Assets, Sale and Exchange of Farm Property, Sample Tax Return.

The cost for the one-day school is $180 if registered by November 29th. After November 29th, the registration increases to $230. Additionally, the course has been approved for the following continuing education credits:

•          Accountancy Board of Ohio, CPAs (6 hours)

•          Office of Professional Responsibility, IRS (6 hours)

•          Supreme Court of Ohio, Attorneys (5 hours)

Registration includes the Agricultural Tax Issues Workbook. Early registration (at least two weeks prior to the webinar) guarantees that you’ll receive a workbook prior to the webinar. 

The live webinar will also feature options for interaction and the ability to ask questions about the presented material.

More information on the workshop, including how to register, can be found at: https://farmoffice.osu.edu/tax/2023-ag-tax-issues-webinar

Contact Barry Ward at ward.8@osu.edu or Jeff Lewis at lewis.1459@osu.edu

Combine in the field ready to harvest.
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Esq., Monday, October 02nd, 2023

Happy Fall Y’all! We are back with another monthly edition of The Ag Law Harvest. This month’s edition brings you an Ohio Supreme Court case that clarifies a party’s obligations under express indemnification provisions in a contract, an Ohio woman’s fight against a local zoning ordinance that sought to remove her pet ducks, and agricultural labor updates. 

Common Law Notice Requirements May No Longer Exist Under Express Indemnification. 
The Ohio Supreme Court recently made a significant decision regarding indemnification clauses in contracts. Indemnification is the right of one party to be fully reimbursed for payments they made on behalf of another party who should have made those payments. There are two types of indemnity: express and implied. Express indemnity is when a written contract explicitly states that one party will reimburse the other under certain circumstances. Implied indemnity is a common law principle where each party is responsible for their own wrongdoing, and the wrongdoer should reimburse the injured party.

In this case, Discovery Oil and Gas contracted with Wildcat Drilling, which included an express indemnification provision. Wildcat was supposed to indemnify Discovery for any fines related to pollution or contamination from drilling. When Wildcat violated Ohio law by using brine improperly, Discovery settled with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for $50,000 without notifying Wildcat and requested reimbursement. Wildcat refused, arguing that Discovery didn't follow Ohio common law, which requires notice before settling a claim.

The Ohio Supreme Court sided with Discovery, stating that the express clause in the contract indicated the parties' intent to deviate from common law principles. The court clarified that notice requirements for indemnification are determined by the contract terms. Depending on the contract, parties may not need to provide notice before settling a claim and seeking reimbursement. This ruling emphasizes the importance of contract language in determining indemnification obligations.

Medina County Woman Has All Her Ducks in a Row. 
A Medina County woman is able to keep her pet ducks after a battle with the Village of Seville and an interpretation of its zoning ordinances. Ms. Carlson, the owner of the ducks at issue, fought to keep her pet ducks after being ordered to remove them from her property by Wadsworth Municipal Court. Ms. Carlson appealed the municipal court’s ruling, arguing that Seville’s zoning ordinance against “poultry and livestock” is unconstitutionally vague. The appellate court agreed with Ms. Carlson. The appellate court found that Seville’s ordinance against poultry focused on hens, roosters, coop hygiene, and the sale of poultry byproducts such as meat and eggs. The court held that an ordinary person would not be able to understand that keeping other birds, such as ducks, as companion animals would violate Seville’s ordinances. Therefore, Ms. Carlson could not be found to have committed an unclassified misdemeanor by owning pet ducks. However, had Ms. Carlson been keeping the ducks and selling their byproducts such as duck eggs and meat, there might have been a different outcome.  

Farm Labor Stabilization and Protection Pilot Program. 
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) has announced the opening of the Farm Labor Stabilization and Protection Pilot Program (“FLSP”). The FLSP will award up to $65 million in grant funding to provide support for agricultural employers to implement new hearty labor standards/procedures and update existing workplace infrastructure to help promote a healthy and safe work environment. The USDA states that the purpose of the FLSP program is “to improve food and agricultural supply chain resiliency by addressing challenges agricultural employers face with labor shortages and instability.” The FLSP has three goals: (1) drive U.S. economic recovery and safeguard domestic food supply by addressing current labor shortages in agriculture; (2) reduce irregular migration from Northern Central America through the expansion of regular pathways; (3) improve working conditions for all farmworkers. Qualified applicants can receive grants ranging from $25,000 - $2,000,000. The application window closes on November 28, 2023. For more information, view the USDA’s fact sheet on the FLSP

Department of Labor Publishes Proposed Rule to Amend H-2A Regulations. 
The U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) Employment and Training Administration (“ETA”) has published a proposed rule titled “Improving Protections for Workers in Temporary Agricultural Employment in the United States.” The proposed rule seeks to amend several H-2A program regulations by: 

  • Adding new protections for worker self-advocacy. 
  • Clarifying when a termination is “for cause.” 
  • Making foreign labor recruitment more transparent. 
  • Making wages more predictable. 
  • Improving workers’ access to safe transportation. 
  • Enhancing enforcement to improve program integrity. 

Read more about the proposed rule by visiting the DOL’s news release. The comment period on the proposed rule ends November 14, 2023. 

Department of Homeland Security Publishes Proposed Rule Amending H-2 Program.  
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) has published a proposed rule titled “Modernizing the H-2 Program Requirements, Oversight, and Worker Protections.” The DHS announced its intent to strengthen protections for temporary workers through the H-2A and H-2B worker programs by providing greater flexibility and protections for participating workers, and improving the programs’ efficiency. The proposed rule would: 

  • Provide whistleblower protection to H-2A and H-2B workers who report their employers for program violations. 
  • Extend grace periods for workers seeking new employment, preparing for departure from the United States, or seeking a change of immigration status. 
  • Establish permanent H-2 portability, allowing employers to hire H-2 workers who are already lawfully in the United States while the employer’s H-2 petition for the worker is pending. 

The comment period for the proposed rule ends on November 20, 2023. 

Thumbs up emoji
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Esq., Friday, July 28th, 2023

It’s getting hot! And we are here to bring you even more heat. This month’s Ag Law Harvest takes you across the country and even across our northern border as we highlight some interesting court cases, a petition to the USDA, and some legislation coming across the desks of Governors from Maine to Oregon.

Ohio Court Determines That Dairy Farm Did Not Intentionally Harm Employee. 
In 2019, a dairy farm employee sustained serious injuries after getting caught in a PTO shaft while operating a sand spreader. After his injury, the employee filed a lawsuit against his employer for failing to repair or replace the missing safety guards on the PTO shaft and sand spreader. In his lawsuit, the employee alleged that the dairy farm’s failure to repair or replace the missing safety guards amounted to a “deliberate removal” of the equipment’s safety features making the dairy farm liable for an intentional tort. In other words, the employee was accusing his employer of intentionally causing him harm. Normally, workplace injuries are adjudicated under Ohio’s workers’ compensation laws, unless an employee can prove that an employer acted intentionally to cause the employee harm. 

For an employer to be held liable for an intentional tort under Ohio law, an employee must prove that the employer acted with the specific intent to injure an employee. An employee can prove an employer’s intent in one of two ways: (1) with direct evidence of the employer’s intent; or (2) by proving that the employer “deliberately removed” equipment safety guards and/or deliberately misrepresented a toxic or hazardous substance. Because there was no direct evidence to prove the dairy farm’s intent, the employee could only try his case under the theory that the dairy farm deliberately removed the safety guards, intentionally causing him harm. 

The case went to trial and the jury found the dairy farm liable and ordered it to pay over $1.9 million in damages. The dairy farm appealed to the Twelfth District Court of Appeals arguing that its failure to repair or replace does not amount to a “deliberate removal” of the safety guards from the PTO shaft and sand spreader. The appellate court agreed

The Twelfth District decided to apply a narrow interpretation of the term “deliberate removal.” The court held that a “deliberate removal” is defined as the “deliberate decision to lift, push aside, take off, or otherwise eliminate.” The evidence presented at trial showed that the shaft guard may have simply broken off because of ordinary wear and tear. Additionally, the evidence could not establish who removed the connector guard or if the connector guard did not also break off due to ordinary wear and tear. Thus, the Twelfth District found that the evidence presented at trial did not support a finding that the dairy farm made “a careful and thorough decision to get rid of or eliminate” the safety guards. Furthermore, the Twelfth District reasoned that an employer’s “failure to repair or replace a safety guard is akin to permitting a hazardous condition to exist” and that the “mere knowledge of a hazardous condition is insufficient to show intent to injure. . .” The Twelfth District vacated and reversed the $1.9 million judgment and entered summary judgment on the dairy farm’s behalf.  

USDA Receives Petition Over “Climate-friendly” Claims. 
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”), asking the USDA to: (1) prohibit “climate-friendly” claims or similar claims on beef products; (2) require third-party verification for “climate-friendly” and similar claims; and (3) require a numerical on-pack carbon disclosure when such claims are made. The core legal issue is whether such “climate-friendly” labels and numerical carbon disclosures are protected and/or prohibited by the legal doctrine of commercial speech, which is protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. EWG argues that the USDA has the authority to regulate such speech because commercial speech is only protected if it is not misleading. Additionally, EWG claims that requiring numerical carbon disclosures advances a substantial governmental interest by protecting consumers from fraud and deception. Although EWG has the legal right to petition the USDA, the USDA does not have to grant EWG’s petition, it must only consider the petition and respond within a reasonable time. 

Maine Governor Vetoes Ag Wage Bill.
Earlier this month Maine Governor, Janet Mills, vetoed Legislative Document 398 (“LD 398”) which required agricultural employers to pay their employees a minimum wage of $13.80 and overtime pay. Governor Mills stated that she supports the concept of LD 398 but was concerned about some of the bill’s language. The Maine legislature had the opportunity to override the Governor’s veto but failed to do so. After the legislature sustained her veto, Governor Mills signed an executive order establishing a formal stakeholder group to develop legislation that will establish a minimum wage for agricultural workers while also addressing the impacts the future legislation will have on Maine’s agriculture industry. 

A Big Thumbs Up! 
A Canadian judge recently found that a “thumbs-up” emoji is just as valid as a signature to a contract. In a recent case, a grain buyer, South West Terminal Ltd. (“SWT”), sent through text message, a deferred grain contract to a farming corporation owned and operated by Chris Achter (“Achter”). The contract stated that Achter was to sell 86 metric tonnes of flax to SWT at a price of $17 per bushel. SWT signed the contract, took a picture of the contract, and sent the picture to Achter along with a text message: “Please confirm flax contract”. Achter texted back a “thumbs-up” emoji. When the delivery date came and passed, Achter failed to deliver the flax to SWT which prompted SWT to file a lawsuit for breach of contract. SWT argued that Achter’s “thumbs-up” meant acceptance of the contract. Achter, on the other hand, claimed that the use of the emoji only conveyed his receipt of the contract. 

The Canadian court ultimately ruled in favor of SWT. The court relied on evidence that Achter and SWT had a pattern of entering into binding contracts through text message. In all previous occurrences, SWT would text the terms of the contract to Achter and Achter would usually respond with a “looks good”, “ok”, or “yup”. This time, Achter only responded with a “thumbs-up” emoji and the court concluded that an objective person would take that emoji to mean acceptance of the contract terms. Achter was ordered to pay over C$82,000 ($61,442) for the unfulfilled flax delivery. As the old saying goes: “a picture is worth a thousand words or tens of thousands of dollars.”  

Oregon Governor Signs Agriculture Worker Suicide Prevention Bill into Law. 
Earlier this month, Oregon Governor Tina Kotek signed a bill that creates a new suicide prevention hotline for agricultural producers and workers into law. Senate Bill 955 (“SB 955”) provides $300,000 to establish an endowment to fund an AgriStress Helpline in Oregon. Proponents of the bill believe the AgriStress Helpline will be able to specifically address the needs of agricultural producers and workers which “[s]tatistically . . . have one of the highest suicide rates of any occupation.” Oregon becomes the 7th state to establish an AgriStress Hotline joining Connecticut, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming. 

Statehouse lawn with row of Ohio flags
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Thursday, June 22nd, 2023

Despite the arrival of summer and continuing disagreements over the state budget, Ohio legislators have been working on several pieces of legislation relevant to Ohio agriculture.  All of the proposals are at the committee level but may see action before the Senate and House after the budget bill process ends. Here’s a summary of the ag related proposals currently under consideration.

Senate Bill 111 – Urban Agriculture

Senator Paula Hicks-Hudson (D-Toledo) targets barriers for farmers in urban settings in SB 111, which has had three hearings before the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. OSU Extension, the Ohio Municipal League, and several farmers have testified in support of the  proposal, which contains three components:

  • Establishes an Urban Farmer Youth Initiative Pilot Program to provide youth between the ages of six and eighteen living in urban areas with programming and support for farming and agriculture.  The bill would appropriate $250,000 over 2024 and 2025 for the pilot, to be administered by OSU Extension and Central State Extension.
  • Exempts temporary greenhouses, such as hoop houses, from the Ohio Building Code, consistent with Ohio law’s treatment of other agricultural buildings and structures. 
  • Codifies the Department of Taxation’s current treatment of separate smaller parcels of agricultural land under the same farming operation, which allows the acreages to be combined to meet the 10 acre eligibility requirement for Current Agricultural Use Valuation.

House Bill 64 – Eminent Domain

A proposal to make Ohio’s eminent domain laws more favorable to landowners remains on hold in the House Civil Justice Committee.  HB 64 is receiving more opposition than support, with dozens of parties testifying against it in its fourth hearing on May 23.  Read more about the proposal in our previous blog post.

House Bill 162 - Agriculture Appreciation Act

Rep. Roy Klopfenstein (R-Haviland) and Rep. Darrell Kick (R-Loudonville) introduced HB 162 on May 1 and the bill received quick and unanimous approval from the House Agriculture Committee on May 16.  The proposal would make several designations under Ohio law already recognized by federal law:

  • March 21 as "Agriculture Day."
  • October 12 as "Farmer's Day."
  • The week beginning on the Saturday before the last Saturday of February as "FFA Week."
  • The week ending with the second Saturday of March as "4-H Week."

House Bill 166 – Temporary Agricultural Workers

A bill addressing municipal income taxes for H2-A agricultural workers has met opposition in the House Ways and Means Committee.  HB 166, sponsored by Rep. Dick Stein (R-Norwalk) would subject foreign agricultural workers’ income to municipal income taxes.  The current municipal tax base in Ohio is based on federal tax laws that exclude foreign agricultural worker pay from Social Security and Medicare taxes since the workers cannot use those programs, and HB 166 would remove that exclusion and add H2-A income to the municipal tax base.  The bill would also require employers to withhold the taxes for the municipality of the workers’ residences. While municipal interests support the bill, Ohio Farm Bureau and other agricultural interests testified against it in its third hearing on June 13. Opponents argue that H2-A workers are not residents because they are “temporary,” that the proposal would have many potential adverse effects on how Ohio handles the H2-A program, and would hamper the ability of agricultural employers to use the H2-A program to hire employees.

House Bill 193 – Biosolid and biodigestion facilities  

Biosolid lagoons and biodigestion facilities would have new legal requirements and be subject to local regulation under a proposal sponsored by Rep. Kevin Miller (R-Newark) and Rep. Brian Lampton (R-Beavercreek).  HB 193 would grant county and township zoning authority over the lagoons and facilities, require a public meeting and county approval prior to seeking a facility permit from the Ohio EPA, require the Ohio EPA to develop rules requiring covers on new biosolid lagoons, and modify feedstock requirements for biodigestion facilities to qualify for Current Agricultural Use Valuation property tax assessment.  HB 193 had its first hearing before the House Agriculture Committee on June 13.

House Bill 197 – Community Solar Development   

A “community solar” proposal that did not make it through the last legislative session is back in a revised form.  HB 197 proposes to define and encourage the development of “community solar facilities,” smaller scale solar facilities that are directly connected to an electric distribution utility’s distribution system and that create electricity only for at least three “subscribers.”  The bill would establish incentives for placing such facilities on distressed sites and Appalachian region sites through a “Community Solar Pilot Program” and a “Solar Development Program.” Rep. James Hoops (R-Napoleon) and Sharon Ray (R-Wadsworth) introduced the bill on June 6, and it received its first hearing before the House Public Utilities Committee on June 21. “The goal of this legislation is to create a small-scale solar program that seeks to be a part of the solution to Ohio’s energy generation and aging infrastructure need,” stated sponsor Hoops.

House Bill 212 – Foreign ownership of property

Ohio joins a movement of states attempting to limit foreign ownership of property with the introduction of HB 212, the Ohio Property Protection Act.  Sponsored by Representatives Angela King (R-Celina) and Roy Klopfenstein (R-Haviland), the proposal would prohibit foreign adversaries and certain businesses from owning real property in Ohio. The bill was introduced in the House on June 13 and has not yet been referred to a committee for review.

 

A chicken looking directly at the camera.
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Esq., Friday, May 26th, 2023

We’re back! We are excited to bring back our regular Ag Law Harvest posts, where we bring you interesting, timely, and important agricultural and environmental legal issues from across Ohio and the country. This month’s post provides you with a look into Ohio’s ongoing legal battle of some provisions in the recently enacted “Chicken Bill”, a brief dive into the U.S. Department of Labor’s new H-2A wage rules, a warning about conservation easement fraud, and an explanation of a court’s recent decision to release an insurance company from its duty to defend its insured in a lawsuit. 

Battle of “Chicken Bill.”
Ohio House Bill 507 (“HB 507”), sometimes referred to as “the Chicken Bill” went into effect last month and was widely known for reducing the number of poultry chicks that can be sold in lots (from six to three). However, HB 507 contained other non-poultry related provisions that have caused quite a stir. Environmental groups have sued the State, seeking a temporary restraining order, a preliminary and permanent injunction to prevent HB 507 from going into effect, and a declaratory judgement that HB 507 violates Ohio’s Constitution. Two provisions within HB 507 have specifically caught the attention of the Plaintiffs in this case: (1) a revision to Ohio Revised Code § 155.33 that requires state agencies to lease public lands for oil and gas development (the “Mandatory Leasing Provision”); and (2) a revision to Ohio Revised Code § 4928.01 that defines “green energy” to include energy generated by using natural gas, so long as the energy generated meets certain emissions and sustainability requirements (the “Green Energy Provision”). 

Plaintiffs argue that the Mandatory Leasing Provision will cause irreparable harm to their members’ “environmental, aesthetic, social, and recreational interests” in Ohio’s public lands. Additionally, Plaintiffs assert that the Mandatory Leasing Provision and Green Energy Provision violate Ohio’s Constitution by not following the “One-Subject Rule” and the “Three-Consideration Rule” both of which require transparency when creating and passing legislation in Ohio. The Franklin County Court of Common Pleas recently denied Plaintiffs’ request for a temporary restraining order, reasoning that no new leases would likely be granted until the Oil and Gas Land Management Commission adopts its rules (as required by Ohio law) and that there is “no likelihood of any immediate and irreparable injury, loss, or damage to the plaintiffs.” Since the hearing on Plaintiffs’ request for a temporary restraining order, the State of Ohio has filed its answer denying Plaintiffs’ claims and currently all parties are in the process of briefing the court on the merits of Plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction. 

New H-2A Wage Rules: Harvesting Prosperity or Sowing Seeds of Despair? 
On February 28, 2023, the U.S. Department of Labor (the “DOL”) published a final rule establishing a new methodology for determining hourly Adverse Effect Wage Rates (“AEWR”) for non-range farm occupations (i.e. all farm occupations other than herding and production of livestock on the range) for H-2A workers. The new methodology has been in effect since March 30th. Late last month Rep. Ralph Norman and the Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, introduced a resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act, seeking to invalidate the DOL’s final rule. Similarly, the National Council of Agricultural Employers (“NCAE”) released a statement declaring that it has filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction against the DOL’s new methodology. 

Opponents of the new rule argue that the increased wages that farmers and ranchers will be required to pay will put family operations out of business. On the other hand, the DOL believes “this methodology strikes a reasonable balance between the [law’s] competing goals of providing employers with adequate supply of legal agricultural labor and protecting the wages and working conditions of workers in the United States similarly employed.” Producers can visit the DOL’s frequently asked questions publication to learn more about the new H-2A wage rule. As it stands, the new H-2A regulations remain in effect and producers should be taking all possible steps to follow the new rules. Make sure to speak with your attorney if you have any questions about compliance with H-2A regulations. 

Conservation Easement Fraud – Protecting Land or Preying on Profits? 
For a while now, conservation easements have been utilized by farmers and landowners to preserve their land while also obtaining a substantial tax benefit. But not all actors in the conservation easement sphere are good ones. Earlier this month, a land appraiser in North Carolina pled guilty to conspiring to defraud the United States as part of a syndicated conservation easement tax shelter scheme. According to a press release by the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”), Walter “Terry” Douglas Roberts II of Shelby, North Carolina conspired with others to defraud the United States by inflating the value of conservation easements which led to $1.3 billion in fraudulent tax deductions. Roberts is guilty of inflating the value at least 18 conservation easements by failing to follow normal appraisal methods, making false statements, and manipulating or relying on knowingly manipulated data to achieve a desired tax deduction amount. Roberts faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and could be forced to pay back a specified amount to the U.S. Government. 

Conservation easement fraud is not new, however. The Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) has been monitoring the abuse of the conservation easement tax deductions for some time. The IRS has included these fraudulent transactions on its annual “Dirty Dozen” list of tax avoidance scams. The IRS has seen taxpayers, often encouraged by promoters armed with questionable appraisals, take inappropriately large deductions for these types of easements. These promoters twist the law to develop abusive tax shelters that do nothing more than “game the tax system with grossly inflated tax deductions and generate high fees for promoters.” The IRS urges taxpayers to avoid becoming entangled by these dishonest promoters and that “[i]f something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.” If you have questions about the tax benefits of a conservation easement, make sure to speak with your attorney and/or tax professional.  

Alleged Intentional Acts Not Covered by Insurance. 
An animal feed manufacturer is in hot water, literally. A city in Mississippi has accused Gold Coast Commodities, Inc. (“Gold Coast”), an animal feed manufacturer, of intentionally dumping hot, greasy wastewater into the City’s sewer system. Prior to the City’s investigation into Gold Coast’s alleged toxic dumping, Gold Coast purchased a pollution liability insurance policy from Crum & Forster Specialty Insurance Company (“Crum & Forster”). After an investigation conducted by the City and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, the City filed a lawsuit against the feed manufacturer alleging that it intentionally dumped toxic waste into the City’s sewer system. Gold Coast then notified its insurance company of the potential claim. However, Crum & Forster denied coverage for Gold Coast’s alleged toxic dumping. According to the insurance policy, coverage exists for an “occurrence” defined as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.” Crum & Forster refused to provide a defense or coverage for Gold Coast in the City’s toxic dumping lawsuit because the City alleges multiple times that Gold Coast acted intentionally, and therefore, Gold Coast’s actions were not an accident and not covered by the policy. 

In response, Gold Coast filed a lawsuit against Crum & Forster asking a federal district court in Mississippi to declare that Crum & Forster is required to defend and provide coverage for Gold Coast under the terms of the insurance policy. On a motion to dismiss, the federal district court in Mississippi dismissed Gold Coast’s lawsuit against the insurance company. The district court reasoned that in the underlying toxic dumping lawsuit, the City is not alleging an accident, rather the City asserts that Gold Coast intentionally dumped the toxic waste. Thus, Crum & Forster is not obligated to provide a defense or coverage for Gold Coast, under the terms of the policy. Gold Coast appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (which has jurisdiction over federal cases arising in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi). 

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the decision of the federal district court, rejecting Gold Coast’s claim that Crum & Forster is obligated to provide a defense and coverage for Gold Coast in the City’s toxic dumping lawsuit. Gold Coast argued that the City seeks to recover under the legal theory of negligence in the toxic dumping case, therefore Gold Coast’s actions are accidental in nature. The Fifth Circuit was unconvinced. The Fifth Circuit explained that when reading a complaint, the court must look at the factual allegations, not the legal conclusions. The Fifth Circuit found that the factual allegations in the City’s lawsuit all referred to Gold Coast’s intentional or knowing misconduct and any recovery sought under the theory of negligence is not a factual allegation, instead it is a legal conclusion. The Fifth Circuit concluded that using terms like “negligence” do not “transform the character of the factual allegations of intentional conduct against [Gold Coast] into allegations of accidental conduct constituting an ‘occurrence.’” Thus, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the federal district court’s decision to dismiss Gold Coast’s lawsuit against its insurer. Unless the Supreme Court of the United States decides to take up the case, it looks like Gold Coast is all on its own in its fight against the City. The lesson here is that although insurance is important to have, its equally as important to speak with your insurance agent to understand what types of incidents are covered under your insurance policy. 

Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation logo
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Wednesday, May 25th, 2022

Farms and other businesses can benefit by using independent contractors to fill labor needs while not having the same financial and legal responsibilities the business has for its employees.  But state and federal laws allow those advantages only if the worker is truly an independent contractor.  When a worker classified as “independent contractor” functions as an employee in the eyes of the law, a business can be liable for failing to meet its employer obligations for the worker.   That’s exactly what happened in a recent case before the Ohio Supreme Court.

The company.  The case involved Ugicom (the company), paid by Time Warner Cable under a subcontract to provide workers to install underground cable.  Workers used the company’s website to select and document installation jobs and the company paid the workers at rates it determined.  The installers were required to wear badges and vests identifying the company and to pass drug tests and background checks, all coordinated by Time Warner.  The company required installers to sign a one-year independent contractor agreement containing a “non-compete clause” that prohibited them from providing installation services for competitors.  The contract also required installers to respond to service requests within two hours.  Installers had to provide their own hand tools, transportation, cell phones, and laptops, but used cable obtained from Time Warner.  They could work any day or time consented to by customers.  The company paid the installers by the job and did not withhold taxes or provide any benefits.

The Bureau of Workers Compensation (BWC) audit.  The BWC audited the company to decide whether it had paid the correct amount of workers’ compensation premiums for all of its employees.  The BWC examined the company’s treatment of workers it had hired to install cable as independent contractors.  Concluding that the company exercised “too much control” over the installers, the BWC determined that the installers were actually employees for workers’ compensation purposes and the company owed $346,817 in unpaid premiums for the employees.  The company unsuccessfully appealed the decision to the agency and the Tenth District Court of Appeals and the case ended up before the Ohio Supreme Court.

The Ohio Supreme Court review.  For purposes of the workers’ compensation program, Ohio law provides that the controlling determination in whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee is “who had the right to control the manner or means of doing the work.”  There is not a bright-line test for making such a determination, however.  Instead, the Ohio Supreme Court explained, the BWC must consider a set of factors related to who controls the manner or means of the work.  Those factors include:

  1. Whether the work is part of the regular business of the employer
  2. Whether the workers are engaged in an independent business
  3. The method of payment
  4. The length of employment
  5. Agreements or contracts in place
  6. Whether the parties believed they were creating an employment relationship
  7. Who provides tools for the job
  8. The skill required for the job
  9. The details and quality of the work

The Ohio Supreme Court’s role was to determine whether the BWC relied upon “some evidence” when reviewing each of the factors to reach its conclusion that the company controlled the manner or means of the installers’ work.   The Court concluded that most, although not all, of the BWC’s conclusions were supported by at least some evidence and upheld the BWC’s decision.  The factors and evidence that received the most attention from the Court included:

  • Independence from the company.  The installers’ public image when working identified them as being with the company; they all wore the same badges and vests, and some had signs on their vehicles with the company’s name. 
  • Method of payment.  The company controlled the rate of payment, which was nonnegotiable and did not include a bid process as is typical for independent contractors. The “take-it-or-leave-it” approach indicated control over the installers.
  • Length of employment.  The installers had an ongoing relationship with the company and did not advertise their services to the community at large.
  • Agreements and contracts.  The company’s non-compete clause restricted the installers’ freedom to work and indicated a measure of control over the workers.
  • Skill requirements.  The BWC concluded that the minimal skill required to install the cable was not high or unique, and the company offered no facts to show that the installers required specialized skills.

Disagreement on the court.  Two of the Supreme Court Justices, Kennedy and DeWine, dissented from the majority opinion. Their primary point of disagreement was that there was no evidence supporting the BWC decision.  The evidence instead suggested that the company controlled only how the installers were paid, and the installers controlled the manner and means of doing their work.  The dissent criticized the BWC for jumping to a quick conclusion that the company’s true motives were “to evade the obligations associated with having employees.”

What does this mean for farm employers?   Farms often rely on independent contractors for seasonal and intermittent help with work like baling hay, running equipment, and doing books. Are these workers true independent contractors or are they employees?  That is a fact dependent question, but we can imagine many scenarios where the farm has a majority of the control over the mode and manner of such work.  Farms are subject to Ohio’s workers’ compensation law, so a farm could be audited by the BWC just as the company in this case was and could see similar results for misclassifying employees as independent contractors. 

Implications for all businesses.  The case carries several implications that raise needs for businesses that use independent contractors: 

  1. Recognize that state and federal tests can differ.  Many are familiar with the IRS test for independent contractors but note that the Ohio Supreme Court applied its unique Ohio test for determining independent contractors in regard to BWC premiums. State and federal laws differ.  It’s important to apply the appropriate test for the situation.
  2. Review the manner and means factors for each independent contractor.  For each worker claimed as an independent contractor, review the nine factors listed above to ensure that the business isn’t exerting the most control over the manner and means of the work.  Where possible, adjust practices that give the business unnecessary control over how and when the work is performed.  Consider these:
      • Use employees to do the regular work of the business and independent contractors for high-skill or unique tasks.
      • Ensure that the business isn’t controlling the public image of the workers.  The workers should not be branded or identifiable with the business through clothing, name badges, hats, vehicles, etc.
      • Require independent contractors to submit bids or proposals on the amount and method of payment for their work.
      • Avoid using the same independent contractor for an extended period of time and ensure that the worker’s services are available to other businesses.
      • Don’t restrict the worker’s freedom to work for others, especially via a contract or agreement.
  3. Maintain records and evidence of the work situation.  The BWC need only have “some evidence” that the nine factors indicate a high level of control over the mode or manner of work, but the business may offer facts and evidence to the contrary.  Good recordkeeping is imperative.  A business that can’t provide stronger facts and evidence in favor of the business, like the company in this case, might be at risk of an employee classification by the BWC.

While there are benefits of using independent contractors to meet labor needs, farms must recognize the associated risk of misclassification.  For workers' compensation purposes, farms can avoid those risks by ensuring that it is the independent contractor, not the farm, who controls the "manner or means" of doing the work.  Read the Ohio Supreme Court’s opinion in State ex rel. Ugicom Enterprises v. Morrison here.

 

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