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West Virginia Supreme Court Ruling Potentially Impacts Use of Partition Statute

The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia recently emphasized that a party seeking a partition of property by allotment or by sale under W. Va. Code §37-4-3 must strictly follow the prerequisites in the statute — but only those prerequisites.

In Bowyer v. Wyckoff, 2017 W. Va. LEXIS 27 (Jan. 26, 2017) (Link to PDF of the case here), the Court addressed an effort by Wyckoff to partition the surface of property in kind or by sale. Bowyer, however, counterclaimed and sought to partition both the surface and the mineral interests either though by allotment or by sale, allegedly because he wanted to develop the shallow natural gas under the property. The circuit court granted judgment to Wyckoff, and Bowyer appealed.

The Court initially confirmed that, under W. Va. Code §37-4-3, “a party desiring to compel partition through sale is required to demonstrate that the property cannot be conveniently partitioned in kind, that the interests of one or more of the parties will be promoted by the sale, and that the interests of the other parties will not be prejudiced by the sale.” Bowyer at *8. The circuit court, however, added another, general requirement for any partition: “It is predicate to the partition of an oil and gas mineral interest that there be an inability of the mineral owners to agree on how to develop the mineral estate.” Bowyer at *6.

The Court rejected the circuit court’s attempt to add a requirement that mineral owners not agree on how to develop a mineral estate before allowing partition; however, the Court affirmed the circuit court’s decision that rejected partition by sale of the surface and mineral interests because Bowyer had not otherwise proven his entitlement to partition by sale under §37-4-3. (The Court did not address Bowyer’s attempt to partition by allotment because Bowyers failed to preserve that issue for appeal.)

Perhaps most important for parties seeking partition by either sale or allotment, however, was the circuit court’s rationale for rejecting sale by partition — a rationale affirmed by the Court:

The forced sale of oil and gas minerals precludes the owner of the benefit of lease consideration and the prospect of production proceeds, which represent the primary and perhaps the exclusive value which such ownership vests. Therefore, the public interest will not be promoted by sale.

Bowyer at *9. Under this rationale, any partition for sale or by allotment under §37-4-3 can be forestalled by a single interest holder who does not wish to sell his or her interest. In fact, this rationale undercuts the entire purpose of the partition statute, which necessarily results in a “forced” sale of a person’s property interest, whether the partition be by sale or by allotment.

For oil and natural gas producers that seek partition in order to develop mineral interests, the Court’s implicit acceptance of the notion that any “forced sale of oil and gas interests” precludes partition could significantly hamper efforts to use the partition statute to develop minerals. For questions about West Virginia’s partition statute, contact Mychal Schulz (mschulz@babstcalland.com) or Matt Casto (mcasto@babstcalland.com).