covenant running with the land

Co-author Lydia Webb

Q: How many New York federal judges does it take to make a mess of Texas property law?

A: In In Re: Sabine Oil and Gas Corp., five. One to get it wrong, another to affirm the wrongness, and three more for reinforcement.

For the third time, a federal court in New York has allowed an E&P debtor to reject its gas gathering agreements because its midstream counter-parties could not establish that the agreements were covenants running with the land under Texas law. This time it was the Second Circuit, which upheld a district court ruling, which upheld a  bankruptcy court ruling.

E&P debtor Sabine sought to reject a series of above-market gas gathering agreements. The bankruptcy court allowed the debtor to do exactly that, over the objection of the midstream counter-party. The question on appeal: Under Texas law, are midstream agreements covenants running with the land (and thus, cannot be rejected in bankruptcy)?

This result could have wide-reaching negative effects on the oil and gas industry.  We won’t delve deep into the weeds of the legal analysis.  But we will raise a serious question about the process.

Horizontal privity?

The key question was whether Texas law requires a showing of horizontal privity as part of the covenant analysis.  The New York courts concluded that Texas requires horizontal privity, which was not satisfied under the present circumstances. This allowed Sabine to escape from its midstream agreements.

Horizontal privity requires that the parties make their covenant in connection with, and at the same time as, a conveyance of real property.  The Second Circuit acknowledged that the trend across the country is to do away with the horizontal privity requirement. However, the Court went on to rationalize that “[i]t would be improper for us to read a traditional requirement of real covenants out of Texas state law when there is no Texas law instructing courts to do so.”

The maddening reality

The test, according to the Texas Supreme Court, does not include horizontal privity as a requirement for a covenant to run with the land!

Rather than opining on the nuances of Texas property law, the Second Circuit could have (and should have) certified the question to the Texas Supreme Court so that the law could be uniformly applied by all federal courts in similar cases arising from contracts for the transportation or sale of Texas oil and gas production.  This option would have made the most sense and was proposed by several trade groups.

The Texas high court, the ultimate authority on Texas common law, should decide what it takes to constitute a covenant running with the land in this state – not a federal court sitting thousands of miles away and not at all versed in Texas property law. Leave it to the experts and let Texas tell the world how its laws should be interpreted and enforced.

Railroaded?

 

Question: Can a landowner enforce a right of first refusal bargained for by his predecessor? Answer: It depends. (Note to self: Why do you always say that in your posts?  Because, as Texas Rangers’ manager Ron Washington might say, “That’s the way the law go”.)  The answer in MPH Production Co. v. Smith et al, was yes, he can. But that’s not always the result.

The Horans owned land in Harrison County, Texas. In 1979, they sold their mineral rights in the property, but reserved a first right of refusal – the opportunity to purchase the rights on the same terms as any future prospective buyer. Two years later the Horans sold their interest in the surface to the Smiths.

Many years and many conveyances later, MPH purchased the minerals without first giving the Smiths the opportunity to match the offer. The Smiths attempted to enforce the right of first refusal and to purchase the minerals from MPH. MPH refused and the Smiths sued.

The issue was whether the first right of refusal was a covenant running with the land. If the right of the Horans – the original reserving party – to buy back the minerals was connected to the land, then the Smiths acquired the right when they acquired the surface.

The Law

In Texas, a covenant runs with land when:

(1) it touches and concerns the land,

(2) it relates to a thing in existence or specifically binds the parties and their assigns,

(3) it is intended by the original parties to run with the land,

(4) the successor to the burden has notice, and

(5) the parties are in privity of estate when the covenant was established.

Rights that do not run with land are personal to the parties to the agreement in which the rights were creted, and subsequent owners cannot enforce them.

The Law and This Case

The answer to the question depended on the intent of the parties in the 1979 deed, which did not state explicitly that the obligations of the grantees (MPH’s predecessors) would bind subsequent owners. Without this express reservation, the court had to rely on Texas case law implying restrictions by law. The court found that the Horans and the Smiths were in privity of estate, so that the Horans’ right of refusal was included in the “bundle” of rights transferred to the Smiths in the 1981 Deed. Thus, the answer to the question ws that the right of first refusal was a covenant running with the land.

The Takeaway:

If you are a party to a deed, say what you mean.  Courts look to the language of the agreement to divine the parties’ intent. If you want a reservation – or any other right or obligation – to be a covenant to run with the land, make your intent clear. Some lawyers would suggest that the parties specify that the rights apply to the grantor/ee, and their successors and assigns. Or that the deed say that it is the parties’ intention that this reservation be a covenant running with the land.

If you are buying minerals and see a right of first refusal in the chain of title, be mindful of this case.