speed limitToday’s “pay attention” edition begins with a quiz. What is the most important thing to read carefully:

a. Speed limit sign in small-town (insert name of Southern state).

b. Itinerary for that dream vacation, the one with multiple layovers of varying durations in airports and time zones far from your own.

c. Title documents to which you affix your John Hancock.

d. Prep instructions before the colonoscopy.

Scott v. Peters, et al. reminds us of the directive imposed by Oklahoma’s constructive notice doctrine:  Read and understand documents that you sign affecting your land. (Helpful hint: It’s no different in other states).

The events

  • 1997 – Warranty Deed filed with the county clerk, Scott conveys 120 acres to Peters; later says he only conveyed the surface.
  • 2000 – Warranty Deed filed, Scott conveys another 40 acres to Peters; retains no minerals
  • 2001 – Warranty Deed filed, Scott grants the same 120 acres to Russell; no reference to mineral reservation.
  • 2001 – Russell conveys the 120 acres to Wichert; no reference to mineral reservation.
  • 2002 – Peters discovers the Wichert deed; obtains a quitclaim from Wichert; leases the minerals under the entire 160 acres.
  • 2014 – Scott sues Peters to quiet title in the minerals under both tracts.

 The issue 

When did Oklahoma’s five-year statute of limitations for reformation of a deed begin to run? Resolved: When the document was filed of record, even if Scott didn’t understand what it said.

Scott argues: Limitations for reformation of the 1997 deed didn’t begin to accrue when the deed was filed. It did contain a mineral reservation, but the reservation was insufficient. A layman such as himself couldn’t be held to know the legal effect of such an insufficiency until the legal effect was questioned. He relied upon Oklahoma’s equitable 15-year limitation statute.

Peters responds: Constructive notice was imposed upon Scott by the filing of the deed in 1997; thus the suit was untimely.

Scott acknowledged that he was precluded from challenging the 2000 deed, but argued that the statute was tolled until he learned of an issue regarding the insufficiency of the reservation in the 1997 deed.

The court opines – Scott should have read his deed

Scott’s suit was untimely. He had an opportunity and obligation to read the 1997 deed and at least inquire as to what he was signing. He was required to be diligent in investigating the transaction. This, he did not do.

Even if the mineral reservation in the 1997 deed had been unartfully drafted and was insufficient, Scott attempted to convey the exact same property in 2001 with no reservation whatsoever. Thus, at least as of 2001 Scott was on notice as to what the deed expressed. Had he timely sought to reform the deed, his suit might have succeeded.

The statute began to accrue a least with Scott’s 2001 deed to Russell with no reservation. At that time Scott was on notice that he had no minerals.

Quiz answer

Its a trick question. All answers are correct sooner or later. In Mr. Scott’s case, it’s obvious.

A musical interlude for Mr. Scott.

My mother used to give us good advice.  For example:  Don’t lie … do your homework.  Sabella v. Appalachian Development Corporation agrees with my mother.

Sabella bought minerals in 1997 under 66 acres in Warren County, Pennsylvania, on which the Haners had two producing wells (under a 144-acre lease from the Harveys). They weren’t paying royalties to Sabella. When given the chance in a 2008 meeting, Mr. Haner did not tell Sabella that his wells produced Sabella’s minerals. Haner then went “all in”, elected not to conduct a title search, drilled more wells, and never paid Sabella.

Limitations and the Discovery Rule

Sabella sued in 2010 for ejectment, conversion and trespass. The Haners asserted that the suit was barred by a two-year limitations statute. Sabella pled the discovery rule: The statute of limitations may be delayed by the plaintiff’s ignorance of his injury and its cause until such time as he could or should have discovered it by the exercise of reasonable diligence.

The court determined that Sabella had used reasonable diligence by taking reasonable efforts to examine the property for oil and gas production. A witness who resided on the secluded, wooded property testified that it was virtually impossible to see wells from the road. For his part, Sabella believed that he did not have the right to trespass on the property to investigate, so he did little else other than investigate from the road.

Does the Objective Test Allow For a Subjective Factor?

Reasonable diligence is determined by an objective standard. Sabella became legally blind between his acquisition of the property and his suit. The Haners argued that such a party-specific consideration could never play into the inquiry. The court disagreed, citing the flexibility of the rule. His impairment was a factor in whether or not he exercised reasonable diligence.

Trespass – Good Faith or Bad Faith? 

As in most states, a Pennsylvania good-faith trespasser owes to the injured party, in effect, the trespasser’s net profits. The bad-faith trespasser is liable for all monies derived from the trespass without offset for the cost of generating those monies here, drilling costs and operating expenses.

The court of appeal determined that when Sabella recorded his mineral deed in official public records the Haners were put on constructive notice of his ownership. Pennsylvania’s constructive notice statute imputes knowledge of a fact to a person if he knows the fact or has reason to know it.  This includes notice by recording in the public record. The Haners were bad-faith trespassers.  The court determined that oil and gas lessees, such as the Haners, are purchasers for purposes of the recordation statute because, upon discovery and production of oil, the lease conveys a potential and definite fee simple determinable.  It appears from the discussion that this issue is a new one for Pennsylvania courts.

About That Homework …

The Haners were required to exercise due diligence in their acquisition of their lease from the Harveys. If they had done so, they would have learned of Sabella’s ownership of the minerals under the 66 acres. Because constructive notice of Sabella’s ownership was imputed to the Haners by statute, they lost their claim to bona fide purchaser status.

Mr. Haner should have listened to my mother.

 Co-author Katie R. English.

The Question

In order to be a good faith purchaser, a party must not have actual or constructive notice of another’s rights. Northern Oil and Gas v. Creighton asked, When should the determination of whether a party has notice be made, A: At the time the second lease is recorded, or B: When the second lessee acquires his rights? Answer: B, when the lease becomes an enforceable contract.

The Timeline

  • 10/2004: The Gundersons grant an oil and gas lease to Holt covering Section 25: S2SE4.
  • 11/2004: Holt records his lease.
  • 2/2005: Holt assigns his WI to Murex Petroleum.
  • 11/25/2007: Apparently enthralled by the notions of free enterprise and unfettered capitalism, Gundersons grant a lease to Creighton covering Section 25: N2SE4.
  • 12/20/2007: Holt records an affidavit stating that the description in the Holt lease should be N2SE4, instead of S2SE4.
  • 1/30/2008: Creighton records his lease.

Northern, successor to Creighton, sued Murex to quiet title to the leasehold estate in the N2SE4. Murex countersued and moved for summary judgment seeking reformation of the Holt lease under N.D.C.C. § 32-04-17. Reformation of a contract in cases of mutual mistake is allowed under that statute “if it can be done without prejudice to rights acquired by third persons in good faith and for value.”

The Trial Court

The court said Creighton had constructive notice of Holt’s claim from the Holt affidavit before he recorded the Creighton lease and therefore could not be a good faith purchaser. Accordingly, the only fact to determine in order to reform the Holt Lease was whether there was a mutual mistake. The parties then stipulated that there was a mutual mistake in the Holt lease and that the Gundersons intended to lease the disputed property to Holt. The trial court ordered the Holt lease be reformed based on the parties’ stipulation and entered a judgment quieting title to the oil and gas leasehold estate in Murex.

It’s Not Over Till It’s Over

 The North Dakota Supreme Court reversed. The trial court must determine whether Creighton had constructive notice when he acquired the Creighton lease (i.e., when it became an enforceable contract), not when it was recorded. The court found a factual dispute on that issue.  Therefore, the trial court erred in concluding as a matter of law that Creighton was not a good faith purchaser.

Takeaways

  • Correctly describe the property you are paying good money to lease.
  • More important: Check your work. Or ask someone who actually likes to dive into those details to do it for you.
  • Even more important: Record your lease promptly. Don’t put it in a drawer and wait around for God-know-what event to record it.
  • There are reasons to violate the last rule, but sloth isn’t one of them.
  • We don’t know Creighton, and we aren’t saying he didn’t have a good reason to delay.

Bob Crewe RIP. Don’t get it? Try this one.

A provision in a contract, no matter how unequivocal, does not always trump the law. The oil and gas lease allowed assignments, but no change or division in ownership of  the land or royalties would be binding on the lessee until the acquiring party had furnished lessee with the instruments constituting his chain of title from the original lessor. Jones v. Clem says that the lessee could not rely on that clause if the lessor’s change of ownership occurred prior to the lessee’s acquisition, even if no notice was given to the previous lessee. (The case is not new, but is worth your attention.)

The Purchaser’s “Mistake”

When new lessee Jones acquired the lease from original lessee Western, he relied on a document he referred to as a “division order” – an unsigned piece of paper from Western’s lease records indicating that the original lessor Smith owned a .125 royalty interest. That document is not a division order under the Texas Natural Resources Code (See §91.401 (3)).

The lessor – Smith’s predecessor – quitclaimed to Clem, who recorded the deed but did not notify the lessee, Western. Nevertheless, Western paid Clem until 1999 before ceasing payment. Jones acquired the lease from Western in 2002 and received the so-called “division order” showing the .125 royalty interest is Smith, so Jones began paying Smith. Clem testified that he thought the well had ceased to produce after 1999, but later learned that the well had been producing. Clem sued Jones and Smith for improperly-paid royalties.

“Constructive Notice” – Again

As the courts often remind royalty owners, the doctrine of constructive notice creates a harsh but irrebutable presumption of actual notice of matters in the public records. Jones was charged with constructive notice of Clem’s right to be paid royalties, and his reliance on the purported “division order” was misplaced. Constructive notice trumped the change-in-ownership clause.

Jones reminded the court that ordinarily, change-in-ownership clauses override the constructive notice doctrine. But Clem’s ownership through the quitclaim deed was a matter of public record when Jones acquired the lease. Clem was already in the chain of title and his ownership would have been easily discoverable by searching the county clerk’s records or obtaining a title opinion. Jones could not rely on failure of notice because the change occurred prior to the time Jones took over the lease.

The Takeaway – They Call it Due “Diligence” For a Reason

The urge to reduce pesky land and legal costs when acquiring a property is strong and understandable, especially when the well has been producing and royalties have been paid with no complaints. But there are limits to what you should rely on without conducting your own investigation. As the court saw it, Jones could have ordered a title opinion, or at least a landman’s examination of the public records. It isn’t clear why Jones didn’t notice in 2002, when he acquired the lease, that Western had not been paying Smith since 1999, but that should have been a warning.