Let’s get right to the takeaway: Despite the humble hourly rate operators are typically willing to fork over for title examination, the job isn’t easy and you’d better put your trust in a practitioner with expertise, patience, and an eye for detail.

It took a court of appeal two tries to get this one right, after being enlightened by an aggrieved party. These errors are typically discovered in the real life of a producer when an aggrieved royalty owner says you’ve overpaid somebody else. Let’s hope the well is still producing when they bring the matter to your attention. Continue Reading Mineral Title Examination – It’s Not Easy  

Chauvin v. Shell Oil Company et al is the pot full of legal unpleasantness that can be stirred up by landmen trying to buy easements, leases, and the like.

A number of plaintiffs – descendants of grantors of two parcels of land in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana – were contacted by pipeline companies seeking servitudes. Apparently believing that betting on litigation offered a better return than the trifecta at the Fairgrounds, the descendants sued Shell and several pipeline companies holding servitudes from Shell for trespass. In the end, the court denied the plaintiff’s claims; they couldn’t carry their burden to prove their ownership of the property. Continue Reading Trespass Plaintiff: First, Prove Your Ownership

Co-author Chance Decker

Gloria’s Ranch v. Tauren et al – the Louisiana lenders’ bad dream

Anyone seeking stability in the law governing E&P activities in Louisiana will view the lower court decision as a grave error that must be corrected. Virtually every mortgage provides safeguards to protect collateral and manage lenders’ risk. The court of appeal reasoned that because of those provisions, the lender controlled the ability of the borrower to execute a release of a mineral lease, resulting in solidary liability when the borrower-lessee failed to release its lease. Continue Reading An Oil and Gas Case to Expect From Louisiana, and Another From Texas

To begin, choose from these candidates for the all-world spendthrift hall of fame:

  • Imelda Marcos.
  • Every Congress since you and I were little babies.
  • Any MLB team that would trade for Giancarlo Stanton.
  • All Power Five football schools not named Vanderbilt.
  • The eventual winner of the Amazon HQ2 sweepstakes.
  • Robert Baratheon, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms.

In Bradley v. Shaffer, Darrell, a beneficiary of a mineral trust established by his grandparents, purported to convey to Bradley his mineral interests that were subject to the trust and any interest held in trust that he might acquire in the future. The trustees sued, alleging that Darrell had no authority to convey his beneficial interest. Bradley argued that an extension of the trust violated the Rule Against Perpetuities.  Spoiler: It didn’t.

A primer on Texas trust law … who owns what and other rules:

Continue Reading Mineral Conveyance Thwarted by a Spendthrift Provision

Conoco Phillips Company v. Ramirez et al is a helpful reminder when preparing a document transferring title:

  • “Family vernacular” is a great way to communicate in wedding toasts and funeral eulogies, not so much in land conveyances.
  • Absent an express reservation, a conveyance of land includes both the surface and the underlying minerals.
  • When there is a claim of ambiguity, extrinsic evidence may not be used to create doubt as to the plain meaning of the words.

Continue Reading Informal Description Dooms Oil and Gas Leases

Co-author Chance Decker

You are selling properties. The buyer thinks you own the deep rights but you know your long-time partner owns them. You attend the closing. You don’t tell the buyer that he’s got the ownership wrong. You are protected by a contract. Do you fess up? What if it means $6.8 million?

In Freeman, et al v. Harleton Oil & Gas Chesapeake agreed to buy three-year term assignments of Buffco’s and Twin Eagle Resources’ interest in 14,000 acres in East Texas for $232 million. Continue Reading An Oil Patch Morality Play – Part 1

shysterAccording to Mr. Bumble, the law is an ass. I disagree (Know a lawyer who’s an ass? That’s another conversation). In Davis v. Mueller the law was not an ass, per se, but as applied by the Texas Supreme Court it showed little mercy.

A refresher on conveyances

  • According to the Statute of Frauds, a writing conveying real property must furnish within itself, or by reference to some other existing writing, the means or data by which the land to be conveyed may be identified with reasonable certainty.
  • A Mother Hubbard clause is a catchall in a deed to capture small, overlooked, or incorrectly described interests.
  • A Mother Hubbard clause is not effective to convey a significant property interest not adequately described in the deed.
  • In Texas a general conveyance of all of a grantor’s property in a geographic area is given effect.

Continue Reading Texas Mineral Deeds Survive the Statute of Frauds

railroadCo-author Chance Decker

BNSF v. Chevron Midcontinent LP et al. asked whether a 1903 deed granted BNSF’s predecessor a strip of land in fee simple absolute or only an easement. The result: BNSF holds only an easement. There’s more to the case than an analysis of particular language in one sui generis contract. What else did we learn?

The big picture

  • Is your assignment to determine the intent of the parties in a document? Consider it as a whole; don’t cherry pick phrases and read them in isolation. I doesn’t matter whether you are issuing checks based on ownership or convincing the court of your righteousness.
  • Beware of ancient title documents, in particular a “Right of Way Deed”. Railroads in the early part of the last century had a propensity to present documents that looked like easements but were really deeds in fee simple. Here, 115 years later, if that was the intent it didn’t work.
  • “Beware” translates to “read the document carefully and thoroughly”. Don’t skim the granting clause and call it a day.
  • In a face-off between the granting and habendum clauses, the granting clause prevails. But, as you will see, it’s not that simple.

Dueling deed language

The consideration: “… benefits which will accrue… by reason of the construction of a line of railroad over the land…”

The granting language: “… a right of way, that certain strip of land hereinafter described, …”. The deed then described a line traced by surveyors.

The habendum clause: “To have and to hold the said premises, together with all appurtenances thereto belonging, in fee simple, unto the said … its successors and assigns forever.”

BNSF’s losing arguments (contending the deed conveyed fee simple absolute)

  • “Right-of-way” is not a legal term of art with a set definitive meaning, but rather may be used in two senses: a right of passage, and also a strip of land which railroad take up one upon which to construct a roadbed. The court agreed, but that didn’t carry the day.
  • “For a right-of-way” is a precatory nonrestrictive clause that states a purpose but does not limit the nature of the estate being conveyed. (Don’t even try to say you already know what “precatory” is.)
  • The habendum clause refers to “fee simple”. That alone should  answer the question. But the granting clause controls, and the court wasn’t ready to recognize a Texas doctrine of “an easement in fee simple” as do some other states.

The court – it’s an easement

The granting clause straddled the line between two different types of deeds, making it ambiguous. The court then had to examine the entire deed and harmonize its conflicting provisions. The court followed the basic rule: Assume the parties intended every clause to have effect so that no clause is rendered meaningless. But the focus remained on the granting clause, which controls the disposition.

Chevron offered the only reasonable reading of the deed. The deed as a whole evinces a clear intent to convey only a surface easement. The court noted these factors:

  • The opening recitals show that the grantor would receive benefits if a railroad passed over the land.
  • “Right-of-way” appears in the granting clause directly in front of “that strip of land”. The placement of the statement of purpose means something.
  • The line shaped by the surveyors went “over to and across” various sections.
  • There was a separate grant of the right to use wood, stone and other resources. If the deed conveyed the land in fee simple the right to take and use the natural resources would have passed automatically.
  • The granting clause defines which bundle of rights was transferred; the habendum clause tells the recipients how long and under what conditions they can have and hold those rights.
  • The habendum clause allows the grantee to have and hold the “premises”, which suggests only an easement.

What is the effect of the reference to “fee simple” in the habendum clause? Fee simple is a “durational or conditional qualifier, rather than the expression of an estate’s size”. The operative question of what BNSF actually owns is answered by the granting clause and the “gloss put on that clause by the rest of the deed.”

What is it about trains and prison in country songs?  Know what I mean?

james-cottonHow to distinguish an oil and gas lease from a mineral deed? In Richardson v. Mills, it was a deed when the instrument uses words like “forever” and imposes no duty to explore for and develop minerals.

An instrument from 1906, when Teddy Roosevelt was busting trusts and creating national parks, was between Mills on the one hand and Lindsey and Harris on the other. The document referred to the parties’ “desire” for “development, tests and demonstrations” and for Lindsay and Harris to manage the property so it would be developed for oil and gas or be sold.

The granting language referred to “an undivided one half interest in the oil, gas and other minerals … “ to Harris and Lindsay, and further rights and privileges necessary and proper for the performance of the work of prospecting, testing, operating, etc.

A 1908 release referred to “said contract or lease the time for said development has expired rendering null and void said lease.” There was a relinquishment of any right or claim held by Nacogdoches Land Company.

Trial and the clairvoyant expert – it’s a lease

Mills offered the opinion of an attorney who reviewed the contract (over 100 years after it was executed) and opined about what the (deceased!) parties possibly intended. It’s unknown whether his conclusion was absorbed from the cosmos or the result of a séance with the spirits of the dead.

The trial court determined that the instruments were ambiguous and allowed extrinsic evidence to determine the parties’ intent. Alternatively the 1906 instrument was released when Lindsay and Harris did not perform their obligations.

On appeal – it’s a deed

Reversed and rendered. The 1906 instrument was not ambiguous. It was a deed:

  • Harris and Lindsay had the right but not the duty to develop the minerals.
  • There was no time within which actions must be taken.
  • The consideration was services rendered.
  • The granting clause said “grant, bargain, sell and convey … ”.
  • The habendum and warranty clauses specified “forever”.

This was language of an unconditional conveyance, not for exploitation of minerals.

What about the 1908 release?

The 1908 release referred to an instrument dated July 9, 1907, whereas the document in question was dated July 9, 1906. The 1908 release described the document as a “contract or lease” but not as a deed. There were other discrepancies. No recording information for the 1906 document was mentioned in the 1908 release. Mills argued that there was a latent ambiguity (an ambiguity appearing by reason of some collateral matter). Mills contended that reference to 1907 really meant 1906.

Mills’ efforts were rejected, including the testimony from the lawyer. The 1908 release was unambiguous and there was no connection between the two instruments.

In an odd twist, the parties stipulated that if Mills lost they would nevertheless own a small interest in the property. Thus, Mills took nothing from the court but ended up with four percent of the minerals from the stipulation.

RIP, harmonica great James Cotton. He could do it with Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters or his own band.