The Ohio Supreme Court accepted the appeal of the owners of a severed royalty interest in West v. Bode, Case No. No. 18 MO 0017, 2019-Ohio-4092. The sole issue before the Court is whether the Ohio Dormant Mineral Act supersedes and controls over the Ohio Marketable Title Act for disputes involving severed oil and gas interests. The Seventh District had ruled that both the Ohio Marketable Title Act (MTA) and the Ohio Dormant Mineral Act (DMA) are available to surface owners seeking to reclaim previously severed oil and gas interests; rejecting the royalty owners’ argument that the DMA is the sole remedy for these disputes. The Ohio Supreme Court’s decision should bring clarity to ownership of oil and gas rights in Ohio.
The Ohio Supreme Court accepted mineral owner Timothy Gerrity’s appeal in Gerrity v. Chervenak, a Dormant Mineral Act (“DMA”) case from Ohio’s Fifth District Court of Appeals. The Fifth District upheld the summary judgment granted by the Guernsey County trial court in ruling that the surface owner had successfully served notice by publication under the DMA process and abandoned Gerrity’s interest in the oil and gas. Following a search of the Guernsey County records (the property’s location) and a search of the Cuyahoga County records (location of Gerrity’s predecessor’s last known address), the surface owner served notice by certified mail to Gerrity’s predecessor at an address that the predecessor had not lived at since 1967. Following failure of service as “Vacant – Unable to Forward,” the surface owner published notice in a newspaper as proscribed in the DMA and completed the remainder of the DMA process, thereby acquiring Gerrity’s oil and gas interest. Gerrity’s appeal alleges that the surface owner failed to exercise reasonable diligence in attempting to locate Gerrity by not conducting an online internet search.
The level of diligence required by the surface owner in a DMA process in attempting to locate and serve notice by certified mail on the holders of the mineral interest is now squarely before the Ohio Supreme Court. The Ohio Supreme Court will decide whether a search of the county records where the property is located satisfies the reasonableness standard under the DMA or whether serving notice under the DMA requires a more comprehensive search, such as including the internet.
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.
Ohio’s Seventh District Court of Appeals recently ruled that Ohio’s Marketable Title Act (the “MTA”) does not conflict with the Dormant Mineral Act (“DMA”), and that both statutes can be utilized by a surface owner to claim ownership of severed minerals. W. v. Bode, 2019-Ohio-4092 (Ct. App.). The Monroe County trial court found that the DMA irreconcilably conflicted with the MTA and that the surface owners were limited to the process set forth in the DMA to claim ownership of a severed royalty interest. However, the Seventh District reversed and determined that, although the DMA provides a separate procedure, both the MTA and the DMA are available to surface owners attempting to claim ownership of a severed mineral interest.
In addition to Bode, the Seventh District issued two opinions clarifying earlier 2019 decisions pertaining to the MTA. Hickman v. Consolidation Coal Co., 2019-Ohio-4077 (Ct. App.) and Miller v. Mellot, 2019-Ohio-4084 (Ct. App.). In its previous decisions, the Seventh District held that if the surface owner’s root of title contained any reference to an oil and gas exception/reservation, the surface owner was precluded from claiming the mineral interest had been extinguished under the MTA. In Hickman and Miller, the Seventh District clarified that it reached that conclusion solely due to the void in the post-severance/pre-root deed history contained in the record in these cases. Because the records were silent as to the interest owned by the grantors in the root of title deeds, the court could not ascertain that the exception/reservation contained therein operated as a reference instead of an original severance. The Seventh District confirmed that the Blackstone analysis1 applies where the root of title contains a reference to a prior reference.
Enacted in 1961, the MTA operates to extinguish interests after 40 years unless a statutory exception applies. While originally excluding minerals from its application, a 1973 amendment caused the MTA to apply to all minerals except coal. In 1989, the Ohio legislature amended the MTA to include the DMA, which provides a method to have severed minerals “deemed abandoned” after 20 years absent a savings event. Therefore, the DMA provides a method, including service of notice on the holders, of declaring a mineral interest abandoned after only 20 years and the MTA results in an automatic extinguishment of an interest after 40 years. The availability of these coextensive alternatives depends on the time passed and the nature of the chain of title for both the surface and minerals. In holding that both the DMA and MTA apply to minerals, the Seventh District provided greater flexibility to surface owners and operators seeking to develop oil and gas in Ohio.
1 (1) Is there an interest described within the chain of title? (2) If so, is the reference to that interest a “general reference”? (3) If the answers to the first two questions are “yes,” does the general reference contain a specific identification of a recorded title transaction?
Ohio’s Seventh District Court of Appeals recently issued three separate opinions involving Ohio’s Marketable Title Act (the “MTA”) and Dormant Mineral Act (the “DMA”): Miller v. Mellott, 2019-Ohio-504 (Ct. App.); Soucik v. Gulfport Energy Corp., 2019—Ohio-491 (Ct. App.); and Hickman v. Consolidation Coal Co., 2019-Ohio-492 (Ct. App.). Despite ruling that the severed royalty and/or fee interests were subject to both the MTA and the DMA, the Seventh District held that the mineral/royalty interests had not been abandoned and/or extinguished by either.
In its MTA analysis, the court scrutinized the language of the root of title deed used by the surface owners to establish title to the severed interest. If the surface owner’s root of title contained a reference to an oil and gas reservation, the court found that the surface owner was precluded from claiming the mineral interest had been extinguished under the MTA. The court determined that even a perfunctory exception to oil and gas “as heretofore reserved” barred the surface owner from claiming title to the mineral interest under the MTA. Finding that the severed minerals survived extinguishment under the MTA, the court addressed underlying defects in the surface owner’s DMA procedure.
In denying the surface owners’ claims under the DMA in Miller and Soucik, the court determined that the surface owners failed to satisfy the diligence required by Ohio law in identifying the mineral holders before permitting notice by publication. Even though the margins of the deeds severing the mineral interests contained notations of abandonment, the court permitted examination of the underlying procedure to determine whether abandonment was proper. Surface owners carry the burden to establish that they attempted service by certified mail prior to proceeding to notice by publication. Because the surface owners in Miller and Soucik failed to provide evidence through affidavits or otherwise that they even attempted to serve notice by certified mail, the court found that the surface owners failed to comply with the notice provisions of the DMA. Therefore, the court ruled that the severed mineral interests had not been abandoned under the DMA.
On December 13, 2018, the Ohio Supreme Court in Blackstone v. Moore, 2018-Ohio-4959, affirmed the Seventh District Court of Appeals decision preserving a severed royalty interest from extinguishment under the Marketable Title Act (the “MTA”) because of a specific reference in the surface owners’ chain of title. The MTA allows an owner to rely on a record chain of title to establish ownership and operates to extinguish interests and claims existing prior to the root of title unless an exception applies. The root of title is the most recent instrument of record at least 40 years prior to the time marketability is being determined. In addition to actively preserving their interest from extinguishment through their own actions, an interest may be preserved, even with no action by its owner, if specifically identified in the record chain of title of the individual attempting to extinguish the interest.
The Blackstones (surface owners) claimed that the royalty interest created in 1915 owned by the Moores had been extinguished by operation of law under the MTA. However, the Blackstones’ 1969 root of title referenced the outstanding oil and gas royalty interest by its owner’s name but failed to include a volume/page reference to the instrument that created the interest. The court rejected the Blackstones argument for a bright-line rule requiring the volume and page number, as the legislature did not require this specificity in the statute. Accordingly, the court determined that the Blackstones’ 1969 root of title specifically referenced the Moores’ interest, thereby preserving the Moores’ interest from extinguishment.
Justice DeGenaro, who is leaving the court at the end of 2018, wrote a concurring opinion emphasizing the narrow scope of the holding. She opined that the MTA no longer applies to severed mineral interests following the 1989 enactment of the Dormant Mineral Act (the “DMA”). While the issue of whether the MTA applies to severed mineral interests was not before the court in Blackstone, this issue is currently before the Seventh District Court of Appeals in a separate, unrelated case. The Seventh District had previously applied both the DMA and MTA to the Moores’ severed royalty interest when Blackstone was on appeal before them.
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.