West Virginia Supreme Court Affirms Approach in Oil and Gas Title Memorandum Decision

The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia recently issued a memorandum opinion interpreting a reservation of oil and gas “royalty.” The result of the Court’s holding is consistent with long standing West Virginia case law regarding oil and gas severances.

In Haught Family Tr. v. Williamson, No. 19-0368, 2020 W. Va. LEXIS 248 (Apr. 20, 2020), the Court interpreted a 1907 deed that reserved, “one half of all the royalty of oil (which royalty shall not be less than the usual one-eighth), and one half of the proceeds of all gas which may be produced from said tract of land…” The Court ultimately affirmed the circuit court’s decision, interpreting the 1907 deed as reserving a 1/2 non-participating royalty interest (“NPRI”). In reaching its decision, the Court stated that it relied upon Davis v. Hardman, 148 W. Va. 82 (1963) and Paxton v. Benedum-Trees Oil Co., 80 W. Va. 187 (1917) to ascertain the intent of the parties as expressed in the deed. Citing to Davis, the Court indicated that the 1907 deed’s use of the phrase “when produced” evidenced that the parties intended to limit the interest reserved to instances where oil and gas was actually produced. To construe the 1907 deed as reserving an in place interest would require regarding the words “when produced” as meaningless. The Court further implied that the deed’s use of “when produced” rendered the deed unambiguous.

The Petitioner argued that the circuit court failed to construe the deed as of the time of the deed and reservations’ creation in 1907, and contended that the Court should analyze the deed as the Supreme Court would in 1907. See Syl. Pt. 2, Oresta v. Roman Bros., Inc., 137 W. Va. 633 (1952). However, the Court emphasized that its’ role, as stated in Davis v. Hardman, is to ascertain the intent of the parties as expressed in the deed. The Court further indicated that the reservation in question was similar to the reservation interpreted in Davis, and was executed around the same time as the Davis reservation. As a result, the Court held that the deed in question reserved a 1/2 NPRI.

The reservation in Davis v. Hardman had notable distinctions from the 1907 deed, and the Davis court relied upon this distinct language in its analysis. The deed at issue in Davis reserved, “the oil and gas royalty, when produced, in and under said land, but said second party, his heirs and assigns, to have the right to lease said land for oil and gas purposes and to receive bonuses and carrying rentals,” and was interpreted as reserving an NPRI. In its analysis, the Davis court listed the distinguishing characteristics of NPRIs and in place interests in oil and gas:

(1) Such share of production is not chargeable with any of the costs of discovery and production; (2) the owner has no right to do any act or thing to discover and produce the oil and gas; (3) the owner has no right to grant leases; and (4) the owner has no right to receive bonuses or delay rentals. Conversely, the distinguishing characteristics of an interest in minerals in place are: (1) Such interest is not free of costs of discovery and production; (2) the owner has the right to do any and all acts necessary to discover and produce oil and gas; (3) the owner has the right to grant leases, and (4) the owner has the right to receive bonuses and delay rentals.

The Court indicated that the intent of the parties as expressed in the deed was clear when read in light of these characteristics. The Davis deed specifically conveyed all rights to lease and receive bonuses or “carrying” (delay) rentals. A conveyance of such rights is directly contradictory to an in place reservation. The Davis court relied heavily on these characteristics and the deed’s specific conveyance of leasing and bonus rights in its analysis. Although the Davis court observed that a reservation of oil and gas “when produced” supported an NPRI reservation, its analysis did not focus on this language as implied by the Court in Haught.

The Court in Haught Family Tr. v. Williamson issued only a memorandum opinion due to the lack of novel issues of law. Although the opinion does not identically mirror the analysis in Davis v. Hardman, it remains valid law as to this particular case. The reservation language analyzed in Haught is typical of NPRI reservation language used throughout West Virginia from the 19th century to present. The result of the Court’s holding remains in line with prior West Virginia cases, and generally follows typical interpretation practices of title examiners.

Ohio Supreme Court to Tackle Whether Marketable Title Act Applies to Severed Oil and Gas Interests

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.

Ohio Supreme Court to Address Whether the Dormant Mineral Act Requires Internet Search

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.

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.

Ohio’s Seventh District Court of Appeals Clarifies Past Holdings, Confirms Marketable Title Act Available to Surface Owners Seeking to Extinguish Severed Mineral Interests

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.

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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?

Sixth District Court of Appeals Analyzes Date Marketability Determined under Ohio Marketable Title Act

Ohio’s Sixth District Court of Appeals recently ruled that Ohio’s Marketable Title Act (the “MTA”) extinguished restrictive covenants on a parcel located in a residential subdivision due to a gap in excess of 40 years without being identified in the parcel’s chain of title. David v. Paulsen, No. OT-18-032, 2019 Ohio App. LEXIS 2229 (Ct. App. May 31, 2019).  The MTA allows an owner to establish marketable title, being title free from reasonable doubt of litigation, by relying on a record chain of title 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. While not immediately impacting the oil and gas industry, at the heart of the dispute in Paulsen was when marketability is determined under the MTA, which may affect future oil and gas ownership claims under the MTA.

The Appellants, members of a subdivision seeking to enforce the restrictive covenant against the landowner Appellees’ building of a shed, argued that the date of the 2009 deed where the landowners took title to the lot should be used to determine marketability. If so, the root of title would be a 1964 deed which predated the restrictions of the subdivision. Therefore, the MTA would not extinguish the restrictions, as they would post-date the root of title. The landowners countered with the argument that the date the members of the subdivision filed their summary-judgment motion, being the date most recent in time, should be the date the court uses to determine marketability.

Finding fault with both positions, the court instead determined marketability when the members of the subdivision sought to enforce their purportedly-superior right, being the date they filed their complaint. Thus, the court found that a July 3, 1973 deed, being the first deed of record 40 years prior to the filing of the complaint, operated as the root of title for the land in dispute. The court concluded that the MTA extinguished the restrictions because the restrictions existed prior to the root of title and were not stated or identified in the July 3, 1973 deed or specifically referenced in any of the documents of the chain of title in the 40 years following the root of title.

While only binding on courts located within the jurisdiction of the Sixth District in northwest Ohio, Paulsen is the first appellate decision in Ohio to analyze the date that marketability is determined under the MTA. If adopted by other courts of appeal, particularly the Seventh District, Paulsen may render the MTA toothless in reclaiming title to previously severed oil and gas interests. Because the court in Paulsen determined marketability on the filing date of the complaint, a landowner would arguably be required to file a quiet title action to claim severed oil and gas interests under the MTA – an action not contemplated by the statute.

Ohio’s Seventh District Court of Appeals Rules on Marketable Title Act and Dormant Mineral Act Claims

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.

Newly Amended Ohio Law Exempts Landmen From Real Estate Broker’s License Requirement

On Wednesday, December 19, 2018, Governor Kasich signed SB 263 into law, which amends O.R.C. §4735 to specifically exclude oil and gas land professionals (landmen) from having to be a licensed real estate broker to negotiate oil and gas leases in Ohio. Following the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in Dundics v. Eric Petroleum Corporation, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-3826 (September 25, 2018), independent oil and gas landmen faced civil and criminal penalties if they continued to negotiate oil and gas leases without first acquiring a real estate broker’s license. With the passing of SB 263, which goes into effect on March 19, 2019, independent landmen may continue negotiating oil and gas leases without a real estate broker’s license provided they follow the new disclosure requirements set forth in the amendment.

The newly passed legislation specifically exempts landmen from acquiring a real estate license if the transaction involves negotiating an oil and gas lease or pipeline easement. However, the landman must first register annually with the superintendent of real estate and pay a $100 registration fee. Additionally, the landman must provide the superintendent with evidence that the landman is in good standing in a national, state, or local professional organization that has developed ethical performance standards for oil and gas land professionals. When negotiating an oil and gas lease, the landman must now provide the landowner with a disclosure form that discloses their registration information and notifies the landowner that the landman is not a licensed real estate broker. The exemption does not apply to fee simple absolute transactions involving oil and gas rights, which still require the landman to be a licensed real estate broker.

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.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Affirms Title Washing

On July 19, in Herder Spring Hunting Club v. Keller (Case No. 5 MAP 2015), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in a 5-0 decision to confirm the practice of “title washing” of unseated or unimproved land in Pennsylvania. Prior to January 1, 1948, “title washing” occurred through a tax sale of unseated land from which oil, gas and/or minerals (the “subsurface estate”) had been previously severed. If the subsurface estate had not been separately assessed, the tax sale of the unseated land would extinguish the prior severance and vest the tax sale purchaser with full ownership in the surface and subsurface estates. If the oil and gas had been separately assessed, then the tax sale of the surface would have no effect on the subsurface estate. After January 1, 1948, mineral estates were no longer separately assessed from the surface in Pennsylvania and title washing could no longer occur.

In Herder Spring, the Court held that a 1935 tax sale for unseated land which was subject to an unassessed 1899 subsurface severance conveyed both the surface and subsurface estates. Citing prior case law, the Court reasoned that, under the prior tax sale law, taxes on unseated land were against the land itself rather than any particular owner. The law placed a duty on the owner of a severed interest to notify the taxing authorities. Tax commissioners had no duty to search the deed records to discover severances relating to unimproved lands. Therefore, if the subsurface was never separately assessed, then the property would be assessed and taxed as a whole, and a tax sale thereunder would encompass the entire estate. Additionally, the Court pointed out that owners of the mineral estate had two years to challenge the tax sale or redeem the property, but failed to do so. The Court also rejected the Appellants’ due process and estoppel by deed argument.

The Court limited its holding in Herder Spring to a very narrow subset of cases and noted that its decision would not govern: (i) tax sales for assessments of surface or mineral rights only; (ii) tax sales where severances occurred after the tax assessment; or (iii) situations in which surface owners can meet the adverse possession standard.

Justice Todd filed a concurring opinion agreeing with the majority but for its position on Appellants’ due process claim that notice by publication of the tax sale was inadequate. According to Justice Todd, such claim was waived for purposes of this appeal because it was untimely raised.

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