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Ohio’s Marketable Title Act Quickly Becoming Preferred Method for Surface Owners Seeking Ownership of Severed Mineral Interests

Since the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in Corban v. Chesapeake Exploration, L.L.C., et al, 149 Ohio St.3d 512, 2016-Ohio-5796, many have questioned the interplay and availability of the Ohio Marketable Title Act (“MTA”) and the Ohio Dormant Mineral Act (“DMA”) for surface owners claiming previously severed oil and gas interests.  The Ohio Seventh District Court of Appeals recently answered many of those questions and illustrated the power of the MTA for surface owners. In Senterra Ltd. v. Winland, Case No. 18 BE 0051 (Ct. App. Oct. 11, 2019), the Seventh District again confirmed that both the MTA and the DMA are available to surface owners claiming ownership of severed oil and gas interests.  That court held that the MTA remains available for surface owners even after availing themselves to the DMA process.  The court also determined that the reference, “excepting all the oil and gas rights underlying said described premises” is considered a general reference under the Blackstone inquiry due to the reference failing to identify the party reserving the interest.

In addition to expanding on whether a reference is specific or general, the Seventh District’s analysis rendered the date determining marketability under the MTA as irrelevant.  That date controls what instrument operates as the root of title, being the most recent instrument of record at least 40 years prior.  Because the MTA statute (O.R.C. 5301.47, et. seq.) fails to define which date should be used to determine marketability, courts have previously used the following dates to begin its MTA analysis: (1) trial/summary judgment; (2) summons; or (3) a severed mineral holder filing a notice of preservation. In Senterra, the Seventh District determined that regardless of using the date of summons or the date of the trial court’s determination, a 1971 deed in the chain of title operated as the root of title for a portion of the land at issue.  However, in looking at the time period between 1971 and 2011 (the 40-year period required by the MTA), the record indicated an unspecified event occurred on July 14, 2000, which may have preserved the interest for its holder.  Therefore, the court looked to the previous deed in the chain of title, being a 1954 deed, and conducted its analysis using this deed as the root of title.  In determining that the surface owner had an unbroken chain of title from 1954 through 1994 with the mineral owner failing to preserve their interest during that time, the court held that the 1954 deed qualified as the root of title purporting to create the interest claimed by the surface owner and extinguished the interest of the mineral owner.  Therefore, regardless of what initial date is used in determining marketability, a proper analysis will step through each deed in order to determine if a 40-year unbroken chain of title has occurred.

The Senterra decision continues a series of victories for surface owners and establishes the MTA as an invaluable tool to claim severed oil and gas interests.  However, it remains to be seen if the case will be reviewed by the Ohio Supreme Court.