Last week the Texas Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Steadfast Financial v. Bradshaw, No. 13-0199. The case presents the court with another opportunity to grapple with an issue that Texas courts have struggled with since the court first addressed it in 1937 - what duty does the owner of the mineral estate owe to a non-participating royalty owner?
The term "non-participating royalty owner" is the name commonly given to a royalty interest in minerals created by a grant or reservation in a deed. "Non-participating" is really redundant; it means that the holder of the royalty estate has no right to lease the mineral estate or to receive any bonus for a lease. In fact, that is true of all royalty interests. A better name for this type of royalty interest might be "fee royalty interest," to distinguish it from a royalty interest reserved by the mineral owner in an oil and gas lease.
The owner of a fee royalty interest, having no right to lease or to drill wells, is dependent on the owner of the mineral estate out of which his/her royalty interest must be paid; the royalty interest has no value unless the mineral interest is leased and wells are drilled. In recognition of this fact, court decisions have imposed a duty on the mineral owner to protect the royalty owner's interest. How this duty is defined, and in what situations the duty is imposed, have been issues Texas courts have struggled with for many years. The cases that have addressed this issue over the years show how the common law develops -- very slowly, and with varied results for the litigants involved.
In Steadfast, Steadfast Financial owned the surface and mineral estates in 1,800 acres of land in Hood County. In 2006, Steadfast entered into a transaction with Range Resources: it sold the surface estate to Range for $8,976,600, and it granted an oil and gas lease to Range providing for a 1/8th royalty. At the time, Betty Lou Bradshaw owned a royalty interest in the 1,800 acres that she had inherited from her parents. When her parents sold the land in 1960, they reserved a royalty interest of 1/2 of the royalty; in other words they were entitled to 1/2 of any royalty reserved by the mineral owner in any oil and gas lease covering the 1,800 acres.
When Ms. Bradshaw learned about the Steadfast-Range transaction, she sued Steadfast and Range. She claimed that the going royalty rate for oil and gas leases in Hood County in 2006 was 1/4th, and that Steadfast had a duty to her to get the best royalty it could obtain. She alleged that Steadfast and Range had conspired to breach Steadfast's duty to her, and that Range should be liable for its participation in Steadfast's scheme. She argued that Steadfast got a much better deal on its sale of the land to Range by agreeing to reduce the royalty rate in its lease to Range from 1/8 to 1/4.
The trial court threw out all of Ms. Bradshaw's claims, but the Fort Worth Court of Appeals held that she was entitled to a trial and remanded the case to the trial court. Bradshaw v. Steadfast Financial, 395 S.W.3d 348 (Tex.App.-Fort Worth 2013). Steadfast appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. You can view the oral arguments in the Supreme Court here.
The Texas Supreme Court first considered the mineral owner's duty to a royalty interest owner in Schlittler v. Smith, 101 S.W.2d 543 (Tex. 1937), where it described the mineral owner's duty as one of "utmost fair dealing." One of the most important Supreme Court cases on the topic is Manges v. Guerra, 673 S.W.2d 180 (Tex. 1984), involving the infamous Clinton Manges. Manges leased the minerals under his ranch in Duval County to himself for 1/8th royalty, and then sold the lease, reserving an additional 1/8th royalty for himself. The Court held that in doing so he breached his duty to the Guerras, who owned a royalty interest in the ranch. The Court held that Manges breached his "duty of utmost good faith" to the Guerras.
More recently, the Supreme Court has grappled with the mineral owner's duty to royalty owners in In re Bass, 113 S.W.3d 735 (Tex. 2003) and Lesley v. Veterans Land Board, 352 S.W.3d 479 (Tex. 2011). In Bass the Court held that a mineral owner has no duty to the royalty owner to grant an oil and gas lease. In Lesley the Court appeared to backtrack on what it had held in Bass, holding that a mineral owner does have a duty to a royalty owner to lease under some circumstances.
The lawyers arguing for Steadfast and Range said that Steadfast had no duty to Ms. Bradshaw to obtain the highest royalty rate it could, and that Steadfast should have the right to enter into a lease with 1/8th royalty and the highest bonus it could negotiate, even though the result would be to lessen Ms. Bradshaw's share of production. Bradshaw's attorney said that such a rule would be contrary to the substantial body of case law that had recognized a duty of "utmost good faith" owed by the mineral owner to its royalty owner. Questions from some members of the Court indicated that they were reluctant to require Steadfast to negotiate the best royalty it could obtain. If the Court decides to rule against Ms. Bradshaw, it could show an increasing reluctance by this Court to impose implied covenants or higher standards of conduct in the relationship between mineral and royalty owners in Texas.