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May 5, 2014

Texas Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Hooks v. Samson

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.

April 28, 2014

$3 Million Verdict for Nuisance in Barnett Shale Case

There's lots of buzz about a recent verdict in a case filed by a landowner in Dallas County alleging injuries from air emissions from drilling and production of Barnett Shale wells in Wise County. The case is Lisa Parr v. Aruba Petroleum, Cause No. 11-01650-E, in the County Court at Law No. 5 of Dallas County. The jury returned a verdict for personal injury and property damages of $2.9 million. According to the petition (Parr - 11th Amended Petition.pdf), Aruba had 22 wells within two miles of the Parrs' 40 acres, including one within 800 feet.

CNN quotes the plaintiff, Lisa Parr, as saying that says she's not opposed to the work oil companies do. She simply wants them to do their business responsibly.

"We are not anti-fracking or anti-drilling. My goodness, we live in Texas. Keep it in the pipes, and if you have a leak or spill, report it and be respectful to your neighbors. If you are going to put this stuff in close proximity to homes, be respectful and careful."

Here is a chart of pending cases related to hydraulic fracturing done last year by Arnold and Porter:  http://www.arnoldporter.com/resources/documents/Hydraulic%20Fracturing%20Case%20Chart.pdf 

May 14, 2011

Texas Supreme Court Again Reverses Jury Verdict Favoring Royalty Owners

The Texas Supreme Court has once again overturned a jury verdict in favor of royalty owners, finding "no evidence" to support the jury's finding. The court's opinion in the case, BP America Production Company, Atlantic Richfield Company and Vastar Resources, Inc. v. Stanley G. Marshall, Jr., et al., No. 09-0399, was issued last week. The case evidences the Court's continued hostility to royalty owners' claims of lease termination.

The important facts are as follows:

Continue reading "Texas Supreme Court Again Reverses Jury Verdict Favoring Royalty Owners" »

January 28, 2011

The Importance of Audit Rights in Oil and Gas Leases: Shell v. Ross

I always counsel my clients to provide in their oil and gas leases that they have the right to inspect and copy all documents of the lessee necessary to determine whether royalties have been paid correctly, and to audit the records of the lessee to confirm accurate payment of royalties. Royalty owners generally assume that the royalty payments they received have been calculated and paid as required by their leases. This is not always the case, as illustrated by a recent case, Shell Oil Company SWEPI LP v. Ross, 2010 WL 670549 (Tex.App.-Houston [1st Dist.], decided February 25, 2010. The case illustrates typical schemes used by producers to underpay royalty owners, and their efforts to prevent royalty owners from knowing how royalties are calculated and, when the royalty owners discover the underpayment, to prevent royalty owners from recovering the underpayment. 

In Shell v. Ross, the trial court and Houston Court of Appeals held that Shell had underpaid royalties due to Ross.  Shell has appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.  The Texas Supreme Court refused to consider the case, but Shell has filed a motion for re hearing that is still pending. Other producers are very interested in the case:  friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed by Chesapeake, Texas Oil & Gas Association, and the American Petroleum Institute asking the Court to reverse the Court of Appeals.

The facts of the case require some explanation but illustrate well the importance of verifying the correct calculation of royalties.

 

Continue reading "The Importance of Audit Rights in Oil and Gas Leases: Shell v. Ross" »

September 8, 2010

Texas Supreme Court Asked to Re-examine NGPL v. Pool

A case now before the Texas Supreme Court that addresses issues important to Texas mineral owners. The case, BP America Production Company, et al., v. Stanley G. Marshall, Jr., et al., No. 09-0399, asks the Texas Supreme Court to address the applicability of the laws of adverse possession to mineral interests for the first time since the Court's decision in the Pool case, Natural Gas Pipeline Co. of America v. Pool, decided in 2003. To understand the importance of BP v. Marshall, it is necessary to first review the Pool case.

Continue reading "Texas Supreme Court Asked to Re-examine NGPL v. Pool" »

October 14, 2009

Accepting Drafts in Payment for Lease Bonus - A Ticking Time Bomb?

The recent volatility in prices for oil and gas leases has raised issues with the time-honored custom in the industry of paying lease bonuses with drafts. Problems have arisin because companies have refused to honor the drafts or because lessors have sought to cancel the transaction after signing and delivery the lease and lessor's deposit of the draft. When someone wants to back out of "the deal" after a lease has been exchanged for a draft, the lessor and lessee run to their lawyers to find out what legal rights and obligations have been created by the exchange. No one is happy.

As I have written previously, it is generally my advice to avoid using drafts for payment of lease bonuses. My practice is to hold my client's original signed lease until I receive a check for the bonus from the company, then send the check to my client and the lease to the company. I find that most companies are willing to close the deal in this manner.

But most lease transactions are consummated using a draft. So, herein is an additional discussion of problems arising from use of drafts..

Continue reading "Accepting Drafts in Payment for Lease Bonus - A Ticking Time Bomb?" »

September 11, 2009

Delaware Bankruptcy Court Rules Against Texas Producers (and Royalty Owners)

A Delaware bankruptcy judge has ruled in the SemCrude bankruptcy that the claims of Texas producers for unpaid revenues from oil sales are subordinate to the claims of SemCrude's bankers. As a result, the Texas producers (and perhaps their royalty owners) may lose up to $57 million.

SemCrude filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code in July 2008. SemCrude was a large purchaser of crude oil in Texas and seven other states. At the time of the filing, the SemCrude entities owed their banks $2.55 billion. It also owed more than one thousand oil and gas producers millions of dollars for oil purchased but not paid for in June and July 2008, including $57 million owed to oil and gas producers in Texas.

The court in the SemCrude bankruptcy recently ruled that the claims of Texas Producers for the $57 million in unpaid proceeds of oil and gas sales are subordinate to the claims of SemCrude's Banks, who hold liens on all os SemCrude's assets, despite a Texas statute that grants the Texas Producers a lien on their production and all proceeds of sale to secure the purchaser's obligation to pay.

The arguments made in the dispute between the Banks and the Texas Producers are complicated because they involve the interpretation of Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code, a code that has been the bane of many law students' studies. The judge's ruling will be appealed and so is not the final word on the matter, but if the ruling stands it will adversely affect the rights of royalty owners in bankruptcy proceedings of oil and gas purchasers and producers, and could greatly reduce their rights to recover payments for their royalties.

Here is a simplified summary of the judge's ruling:

Continue reading "Delaware Bankruptcy Court Rules Against Texas Producers (and Royalty Owners)" »

March 18, 2009

Oil and Gas Lease Termination Clauses

Last week I discussed Wagner & Brown v. Sheppard, a recent Texas Supreme Court case that involved a lease termination clause.  Sheppard's lease in that case provided that, if royalties were not paid to her within 120 days after first production, the lease would automatically terminate.  That is exactly what happened.

Landowners are usually surpriesed to learn that, under a "standard form" oil and gas lease, the lessee's failure to pay royalties does not give the lessor the right to terminate the lease.  The lease remains in effect, and the lessor's only remedy is to sue for the unpaid royalties.  Landowners often seek to negotiate a clause like Sheppard's that gives the lessor the right to terminate the lease for failure to pay royalties.  Exploration companies of course do not like such a provision.  It puts them at risk that, if royalties are not timely paid for some inadvertent reason, they can lose the lease even though they are willing and able to pay the royalties. 

First, I think it is not a good idea to include a provision that a lease terminates automatically if royalties are not paid within a specified time.  Depending on the circumstances, it may not be in the lessor's best interest to terminate the lease, even though royalties have been delayed.  A better provision is that, if royalties are not paid by a specified date, the lessor has the option to terminate the lease.

Second, I think that the lessee has a good point as well.  The lessor should not be able to terminate a lease because of inadvertence, or an innocent mistake, in paying royalties.  A well-drafted termination clause should provide that, if royalties are late, the lessor must give written notice to the lessee and an opportunity to cure the problem.  Only if the late payment is not rectified should the lessor have the right to terminate the lease.