The Texas Supreme Court has granted the plaintiffs' petition to review a case important for Texas mineral owners, Hooks v. Samson Lone Star. I wrote about this case when it was decided by the Houston First Court of Appeals in 2011. The court of appeals' opinion reversed a judgment for $21 million against Samson Lone Star in a case involving alleged bad-faith pooling and fraudulent misrepresentations by the Hooks' lessee. The court of appeals threw out the judgment, holding that Texas Supreme Court precedent required it to hold that the Hooks' claims were barred by the applicable statute of limitations.
The statute of limitations bars claims if they are not filed within four years (or two years for some claims) of the event that caused the damages or injury for which the claim is brought. In some cases, courts have excused the delay in filing claims if the damage or injury was not discovered until a later date. Under this "discovery rule," the statute of limitation is "tolled" until the plaintiff discovered or, with reasonable diligence, should have discovered, her injury. Also, courts have held that the statute of limitations is tolled where the defendant fraudulently conceals the facts giving rise to the damage or injury.
Over the last several years, the Supreme Court has severely narrowed the circumstances under which plaintiffs can invoke the discovery rule or claim fraudulent concealment to toll limitations on a claim, particularly in suits by mineral owners against their lessees. In Exxon v. Emerald in 2009, the Supreme Court reversed an $18 million judgment against Exxon on the basis that the mineral owners' claims were barred by limitations -- despite an express finding by the jury that the plaintiffs had filed their claim within four years after they discovered or should have discovered Exxon's fraudulent conduct. In 2011, the Supreme Court in BP v. Marshall overruled a jury verdict in favor of royalty owners, holding that their claim was barred by limitations as a matter of law even though the jury had found that the lessee had fraudulently concealed the facts and that the plaintiffs had no reason to discover the true facts until less than two years prior to filing suit.
One justice on the Houston First Court of Appeals wrote a concurring opinion that may have influenced the Supreme Court to take the case, which bears repeating here:
It is undisputed that Samson drilled a directional well bottomed within the "buffer zone" established in the Hooks' Jefferson County Lease (the "Lease") and failed to elect between the three alternatives outlined in the Lease, thus exposing itself to liability for breach of contract. If the Lease had allowed pooling, Samson could have solved the problem by pooling the lands covered by the Lease with the adjacent lands. The Lease, however, did not allow pooling.
Samson's solution to this problem was to begin misrepresenting various "facts" to escape the consequences of its actions. Its landman, Lanoue, filed papers with the Railroad Commission falsely certifying that Samson had pooling authority from the Hooks. He later filed paperwork in the county's real property records falsely indicating that the Hooks had already agreed to pool. Lanoue then sent a letter to the Hooks asking them to agree to pool the westernmost 50 acres of the Hooks' acreage in the Lease into the BSM 1 Unit. When Charles Hooks called Lanoue and asked for more information about the well's location, Lanoue represented to Hooks that the well was located approximately 1500 feet from the lease line, a location outside the buffer zone. When Charles Hooks asked for a plat, Lanoue faxed him one that represented a bottom-hole location that was +/- 1400 feet from the lease line, the accuracy of which he, Lanoue, had certified with no reference to an actual bottom-hole location, although it was ascertainable from a prior directional survey. Instead, when asked the origin of those measurements, he answered: "I got them from myself." On this basis the Hooks agreed to the formation of the unit.
Thus it is clear that Samson, through its representative, took action to cover up its own error by both oral and written misrepresentations to its lessor, born of "assuming" and "hoping." It is further clear that the Hooks, after asking for and receiving verification of Lanoue's oral representation in the form of a plat, believed its lessee's representations and made no attempt to go beyond them to discover the truth or falsity thereof. On these facts, the majority has found that the discovery rule does not apply to the Hooks' fraud, fraudulent inducement, and statutory fraud claims and that they are barred by limitations as a matter of law.
I reluctantly concur, based on the Texas Supreme Court's holding in BP America Production Co. v. Marshall, 342 S.W.3d 59 (Tex. 2011). In that case, the Texas Supreme Court makes clear that no lies on the part of a lessee, however self-serving and egregious, are sufficient to toll limitations, as long as it is technically possible for the lessor to have discovered the lie by resort to the Railroad Commission records. This burden the Court imposes upon lessors is severe. It is now a lessor's duty to presume that any statement made by its lessee is false and to ransack the esoteric and oft-changing records at the Railroad Commission to discover the truth or falsity of its lessee's statements. If, as is often the case, these records are technical in nature and require expert review to ferret out the truth, it is the lessor's job to hire experts out of its own pocket to perform such a review. If a lessor fails to take these steps, then it will have failed in exercising reasonable diligence to protect its mineral interests and, if the lessee's fraud is successful for longer than the limitations period, the lessor's claims will be barred by limitations.
Such is the case here. Had the Hooks presumed that Samson's oral representations, followed by written representations, about the bottom-hole location of the well were false, and had they hired an expert to resort to Railroad Commission records to trace the various filings (some of which were also false), that expert could have hit upon the directional survey and, by virtue of his expertise, interpreted it to prove the falsity of the representations. Instead they merely relied on the oral and written representations of their lessee, without undergoing what doubtless seemed to them the useless expense of hiring an expert to rake through the Railroad Commission records with an eye towards exposing a potential falsehood.
I believe the Texas Supreme Court has placed an unnecessary and very heavy burden on lessors by its ruling in BP America, one that will result either in much money being spent unnecessarily on prophylactic forensic review of Railroad Commission records or in many viable claims being lost to limitations. As we are, however, bound to follow the Court's rulings, I reluctantly concur in that part of the opinion that finds the Hooks' fraud, fraudulent inducement, and statutory fraud claims barred by limitations as a matter of law.
Amicus briefs supporting Samson Lone Star were filed by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, and the Texas Oil & Gas Association. Amicus briefs supporting the Hooks' application were filed by the Texas Land & Mineral Owners' Association and by Cardwell, Hart & Bennett, a law firm that regularly represents landowners in oil and gas cases. Links to the briefs of all parties and amici can be found here. The court has not yet set a date for oral argument.