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Ohio’s Seventh District Court of Appeals Rules on Dormant Mineral Act’s Requirement of Reasonable Due Diligence Prior To Notice by Publication

On November 26, 2018, Ohio’s Seventh District Court of Appeals in Sharp v. Miller, 7th Dist. Jefferson No. 17 JE 0022, 2018-Ohio-4740, affirmed the abandonment of oil and gas interests pursuant to the Dormant Mineral Act (O.R.C. §5301.56) (the “DMA”). The issues before the court were: (i) whether the surface owners’ (the Millers) service of notice by publication to the mineral owners (the Sharps) properly complied with Section (E)(1) of the DMA; and (ii) whether the oil and gas leases executed by the Millers, prior to claiming the minerals under the DMA, constituted savings events for the Sharps. The court held in favor of the Millers on both issues confirming the abandonment of the Sharps’ oil and gas interests.

The Sharps alleged that they received insufficient notice of the surface owners’ intent to abandon the minerals, claiming that a reasonable search by the Millers would have revealed the identities and addresses of the Sharps, and thus required notice to be served by certified mail instead of by publication. In rejecting the Sharps’ argument that the Millers failed to exercise reasonable due diligence, the court used the failed results of the Sharps’ own search to establish that the Millers’ search was sufficient. In line with its recent decision Shilts v. Beardmore, 7th Dist. Monroe No. 16 MO 0003, 2018-Ohio-863, the Seventh District again declined to establish an objective bright-line rule for when notice by publication is permitted or to define “reasonable due diligence.” Instead, the court will continue to apply a subjective test and look to the facts and circumstances in each individual case to determine if the surface owners conducted a reasonable search in attempting to identify the mineral interest holders. Additionally, whether a surface owner’s search was reasonable may depend on the outcome of the mineral owner’s search using alternative resources, such as searching the records of adjacent counties, search engine inquires, and searching for heirs on subscription websites like ancestry.com.

In a matter of first impression, the court rejected the argument that oil and gas leases executed by the Millers, prior to claiming the minerals under the DMA, constituted savings events for the Sharps. While the Ohio Supreme Court has held that a recorded oil and gas lease is a title transaction (Chesapeake Exploration, L.L.C. v. Buell, 144 Ohio St.3d 490, 2015-Ohio-4551, 45 N.E.3d 185, ¶66), the Seventh District noted that the Millers did not own the minerals at the time of the lease. Therefore, the mineral interest was not the “subject of” the title transaction. As such, the leases did not constitute savings events under the DMA for the Sharps and did not preclude abandonment of the Sharps’ interest under the DMA.

The Sharps have until January 10, 2019 to appeal the Seventh District’s decision to the Ohio Supreme Court.