Ohio Supreme Court

A pump jack during a sunset.
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Monday, January 25th, 2021

Do the terms “abandoned mineral rights” mean anything to you? Do you currently own land that you don’t have the mineral rights to? Do you own mineral rights, but haven’t really done anything to make sure your rights are still protected? 

Mineral rights are valuable asset in our personal portfolios that can allow us to build our legacy and provide for future generations. However, sometimes what we once thought as part of our legacy, is in fact now the legacy of another. The Ohio Supreme Court recently decided two cases dealing with abandoned mineral rights and the procedure in which a surface landowner can reunify the mineral rights with the surface rights. 

This two-part blog series will first analyze the Ohio Supreme Court’s opinion regarding the notice requirements under Ohio’s Dormant Mineral Act and the second part will analyze how the Dormant Mineral Act and Ohio's Marketable Title Act work together. 

Gerrity v. Chervenak

The Ohio Supreme Court addressed and clarified the notice requirements under the Ohio Dormant Mineral Act, Ohio Revised Code §5301.56

John Chervenak is a trustee of the Chervenak Family Trust (“Chervenak”) which owns approximately 108 acres in Guernsey County. The rights to the minerals under the Chervenak property were retained by T.D. Farwell, the individual who transferred the 108 acres to the Chervenak family. 

In 2012, a title search for the Chervenak property identified Jane Richards, daughter of T.D. Farwell, as the owner of the mineral rights under the property. The records listed a Cleveland address for Ms. Richards. Unfortunately, Ms. Richards passed away in 1997. At the time of her passing, Ms. Richards was a resident of Florida and had one son, Timothy Gerrity. 

In 2012, Chervenak sought to reunite the severed mineral interest with the surface estate interest pursuant to Ohio’s Dormant Mineral Act. Chervenak recorded with the Guernsey County Recorder an affidavit of abandonment of the severed mineral interest. The affidavit stated that Chervenak sent notice by certified mail to Ms. Richards at her last known address – the Cleveland address – but the notice had been returned and marked undeliverable. The affidavit also stated that Ms. Richards’ heirs, devisees, executors, administrators, next of kin, and assigns had been served notice of the abandonment by publication in a Guernsey County newspaper. 

In 2017, Gerrity filed an action in the Guernsey County Court of Common Pleas seeking to quiet title to the mineral rights under the Chervenak property and for a declaratory judgment that Gerrity was the exclusive owner of the mineral rights. Gerrity claimed that he was the rightful owner to the mineral rights under the Chervenak property as a result of the probate of his mother’s estate in Florida. The Guernsey county records, however, revealed no evidence of Ms. Richard’s death or of Gerrity’s inheritance of the mineral interest. 

Further, Gerrity claimed that Chervenak did not comply with Ohio’s Dormant Mineral Act in two ways: (1) Gerrity argued that under the Dormant Mineral Act Chervenak must identify all holders of the mineral interest and notify them by certified mail; and (2) Chervenak did not employ reasonable search methods to locate all holders of the mineral interest before serving notice by publication. 

Both the Guernsey County Court of Common Pleas and the Fifth District Court of Appeals declared Chervenak the owner of the mineral rights under the Dormant Mineral Act. Gerrity then sought the Ohio Supreme Court’s review. 

The Dormant Mineral Act

Under current Ohio law, unless a severed mineral interest is in coal or is coal related, held by a political body, or a savings event has occurred within the 20 preceding years, a mineral interest will be considered abandoned and vested in the owner of the surface lands, so long as the surface landowner complies with Ohio Revised Code §5301.56(E). 

R.C. §5301.56(E) states: 

Before a mineral interest becomes vested in the surface landowner, the landowner shall do both of the following: 

  1. Serve notice by certified mail to each holder or each holder’s successors or assignees, at the last known address of each, of the landowner’s intent to declare the mineral interest abandoned. If service of the notice cannot be completed, then the landowner shall publish notice of the landowner’s intent to declare the mineral interest abandoned in a newspaper of general circulation in each county in which the land is located. 
  2. 30 days after serving notice, the landowner must file an affidavit of abandonment in the County Recorder’s office in each county that the land is located in. 

Gerrity claimed that under the Dormant Mineral Act, his mineral interest cannot be deemed abandoned and vested in Chervenak because under R.C. §5301.56(E)(1) Chervenak is required to identify Gerrity and serve him Chervenak’s notice of intent to declare the mineral rights abandoned. The Ohio Supreme Court disagreed. While the Ohio Supreme Court agreed that Gerrity was considered a “holder” under the Dormant Mineral Act, Chervenak was not required to identify every possible holder and serve them notice, especially holders that do not appear on public record. 

The Ohio Supreme Court found that such a stringent requirement would undo the intent behind the Dormant Mineral Act. The Court analyzed the text of the Dormant Mineral Act and found that because the Ohio General Assembly allows for a surface landowner to publish its notice of intent to declare the mineral rights abandoned in §5301.56(E)(1), the surface landowner is not required to identify and serve notice to each and every potential mineral interest holder. 

The Court reasoned that no surface owner, no matter how much effort put forth, will ever really be certain that he or she has identified every successor or assignee of every mineral interest owner who appears on public record. This is why, the Court articulated, that the General Assembly allows for publication of a landowner’s intent to declare the mineral rights abandoned, because there will be instances when a holder may be unidentifiable or unlocatable. 

Second, Gerrity argued that Chervenak must employ reasonable search methods to identify and locate all mineral interest holders – which include not only searching public records but also internet searches and searches of genealogy databases before publishing the notice in a newspaper. The Court agreed that a surface landowner must use reasonable diligence to try and identify mineral interest holders but disagreed with Gerrity to the extent in which a surface owner must go in order to have exercised reasonable diligence. The Ohio Supreme Court found that determining whether or not a surface landowner has exercised reasonable diligence to identify mineral interest holders will have to be determined on a case-by-case basis. 

In this case, the Ohio Supreme Court found that Chervenak did exercise due diligence in trying to locate all holders. The Court determined that by searching through Guernsey County records and Cuyahoga County records (the county in which Cleveland is located), Chervenak fulfilled their due diligence requirement. The Court declined to impose a requirement that every surface landowner search the internet, especially due to the inconsistent reliability of such searches, or consult with any subscription-based service to identify a potential mineral interest holder. The Court held that a search of county property records and county court records will usually establish a baseline of due diligence by the surface landowner. 

Visit the Ohio Supreme Court’s Slip Opinion on Gerrity v. Chervenak

Posted In: Oil and Gas, Property
Tags: Oil, Gas, Ohio Supreme Court, mineral rights
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Last Will and Testament
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Friday, January 08th, 2021

Do you have a will? Was your will executed formally? Do your parents have a will? Was their will executed in accordance with Ohio’s laws? What happens if your parent’s friend claims they are entitled to a portion of your parent’s estate because they have a handwritten note saying as much? Recently, the Ohio Supreme Court decided a case to help clarify Ohio’s laws regarding will execution.

In re Estate of Shaffer

Dr. Joseph Shaffer – a psychologist and part owner of successful sleep clinics – executed a formal will in 1967. Dr. Shaffer’s formal will instructed that if his wife were to pass away before him, his estate would pass through trust to his two sons. Dr. Shaffer’s wife, unfortunately, did pass away before him. On July 20, 2015, Dr. Shaffer also passed away. Dr. Shaffer’s formally executed will was admitted into probate in 2015. 

In January 2016, Juley Norman – a friend and caretaker of Dr. Shaffer – filed a creditor’s claim against Dr. Shaffer’s estate claiming that she was entitled to a portion of his estate because of the care and services she provided to Dr. Shaffer before the end of his life. Ms. Norman attached a copy of a handwritten 3x5 notecard signed by Dr. Shaffer in 2006.  No signatures other than Dr. Shaffer’s were present on the notecard, which read: 

Dec 22, 2006
My estate is not 
completely settled 
all of my sleep network
stock is to go to 
Terry Shaffer
Juley Norman for 
her care of me is to
receive 1/4 of my estate
Terry is to be the
executor. 
This is my will. 
[signed by Dr. Shaffer]

 

Zachary Norman, Juley’s son, filed an application asking the probate court to treat the notecard as a will and recognize his mother as a will beneficiary. At an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the notecard should be admitted as Shaffer’s will, Norman testified about her close relationship with Shaffer and the circumstances surrounding the notecard.  She stated that only she and her son witnessed Shaffer write and sign the notecard and that Shaffer directed her son to keep it in a safe place.  The probate court held, however, that there was not clear and convincing evidence that the notecard was intended to be Shaffer’s will.

Ohio's Sixth District Court of Appeals disagreed, overruling the probate court and allowing Juley to be added to the list of beneficiaries of Dr. Shaffer’s Estate.  Dr. Shaffer’s son sought the Ohio Supreme Court’s discretionary review of the matter after the appellate court’s reversal. 

In reaching its unanimous decision to reverse the court of appeals, the Ohio Supreme Court analyzed the relationships between three Ohio laws, as follows:

ORC § 2107.03 – Formal Will Making Requirements

Ohio law states that a document admitted to probate as a formal will must meet be:

  1. In writing; 
  2. Signed at the end by the testator (or in some circumstances someone else at the testator’s direction); and
  3. Attested to and subscribed to by two or more competent witnesses who saw the testator sign the will. 

The Ohio Supreme Court confirmed both lower courts’ decisions that Dr. Shaffer’s notecard cannot be considered a formal will. No witness signatures were present on the notecard and thus the only way to admit Dr. Shaffer’s will is through an exception in Ohio’s laws regarding will making formalities.  

ORC § 2107.24 – Exception to the Formal Will Making Requirements

R.C. § 2107.24 provides a narrow exception to the formalities required in R.C. § 2107.03 and recognizes a will even though no witness has signed the purported will. A probate court must hold a hearing to examine whether an advocate of the nonconforming document establishes by clear and convincing evidence that: 

  1. The decedent prepared the document or caused the document to be prepared; 
  2. The decedent signed the document and intended the document to constitute the decedent’s will; and 
  3. The decedent signed the document in the conscious presence of two or more witnesses. 

This statute is central to the issue between the Normans and the Shaffers. The Ohio Supreme Court found that under this law, the court’s role is to determine whether a document should be admitted to probate, not to determine the validity of the will’s contents. Therefore, the Ohio Supreme Court found that the probate court should have admitted the will into probate based on the above requirements. Even though the specific bequests contained within the will may be stricken once the will is admitted, the 2107.24 evidentiary hearing is not the proper mechanism to determine the validity of the contents of the will. 

However, the Ohio Supreme Court also analyzed Ohio’s “Voiding Statute” which eliminates any specific bequests to an interested witness to the will. 

ORC § 2107.15 the “Voiding Statute”

Ohio’s “voiding statute” states that if a devise or bequest is made to a person who is one of only two witnesses to a will, the devise or bequest is void automatically. The witness, however, will be able to testify to the execution of the will, as if the specific devise or bequest to that witness had not been made. 

Essentially, if a witness stands to take a portion of a testator’s estate under a will and if the validity of that will hinges on that witness acting as one of the two essential witnesses necessary to create a valid will, then that person’s interest under the will is void as a matter of law. This law does not control whether someone is competent to be a witness in order to establish a valid will, it only governs whether a devise or bequest in an already admitted will is valid. Therefore, this law comes into effect only after a will is determined to be valid and is admitted to probate. 

The Ohio Supreme Court found that the voiding statute applies to witnesses under both R.C. § 2107.03 and § 2107.24. The Court held that Juley Norman could not take ¼ of Dr. Shaffer’s estate because she is one of the two witnesses required to establish a valid will, and thus Dr. Shaffer’s devise to her is void. 

Conclusion 

Sadly, Dr. Shaffer is no longer with us to tell the Ohio Supreme Court what his wishes were. The only people who can testify to the validity of the notecard stand to gain something from that notecard being admitted to probate. Dr. Shaffer may have intended to provide Juley with 1/4 of his estate, but he did not take the legal steps necessary to ensure that Juley would be a beneficiary of the will.   Historically, others in Juley’s position have not been honest when it comes to claiming an interest in someone’s estate, which is why the law prohibits witnesses from also being beneficiaries of the will.

The Shaffer case illustrates why it is important to consult with an attorney to ensure that your wishes will be carried out as you intend and your estate plan is in order.  If you want to change your will, an attorney will ensure that the new provisions are in accordance with Ohio law.  Doing so can keep your family and friends out of court.

Useful links: The Ohio Supreme Court's slip opinion In re Estate of Shaffer

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Friday, February 08th, 2019

Written by Ellen Essman, Sr. Research Associate

The Ohio Supreme Court recently decided that a “Lake Erie Bill of Rights” initiative could be placed before Toledo residents in a special election on February 26, 2019.   The Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) is a proposed amendment to the Toledo City Charter.  Josh Abernathy, an opponent to the initiative, brought the lawsuit seeking a “writ of prohibition”—meaning he wanted the Ohio Supreme Court to determine that the Lucas County Board of Elections must remove LEBOR from the special election ballot.

The Supreme Court began its analysis in the case by explaining that in order to obtain a writ of prohibition in an election case, the party bringing suit must prove all of the following:

  • The board of elections exercised quasi-judicial power,
  • The exercise of that power was unlawful, and
  • The party bringing suit has no adequate remedy in the ordinary course of law.

The Supreme Court examined the three elements in reverse order.  The Court quickly answered the third element in the affirmative—reasoning that because the election was so imminent, Abernathy did “not have an adequate remedy in the ordinary course of the law,” because any other suit, such as an injunction, would not be finished prior to the election.

The Supreme Court determined that the second element was not satisfied.  The Court reasoned that the “exercise of power” was not “unlawful,” because “a board of elections has no legal authority to review the substance of a proposed charter amendment and has no discretion to block the measure from the ballot based on an assessment of its suitability.”  In doing so, the Supreme Court pointed to past cases it had decided, as well as the language in Article XVIII, Section 9 of the Ohio Constitution, which must be read with Section 8, both provided above.  Section 9 says that a charter amendment can “be submitted to” the voters “by a two-thirds vote of the legislative authority,” as well as through a petition signed by 10 percent of the voters in the municipality. Then, as is explained above, the board of elections must pass an ordinance to include the proposed amendment on the ballot.  After that, the Supreme Court found, based on precedent and the language of the Constitution, the only responsibility of the board of elections is to put the charter amendment on the ballot—the board has no other authority.

Finally, the Ohio Supreme Court concluded that since the second element was not met, there was no reason to address the first element—whether or not “the board’s exercise of authority was quasi-judicial.”  Abernathy also argued that the board of elections should not have put LEBOR on the ballot due to the doctrine of claim preclusion—meaning that since the Court had already decided a case concerning LEBOR, the board should not have the power to place it on the ballot afterwards.  The Supreme Court disagreed, pointing once again to the language in the Ohio Constitution, which effectively says that “the board had no power to keep the proposed charter amendment off the ballot for any reason, including claim preclusion.” In sum, the Supreme Court decided that based on a reading of case law and the Ohio Constitution, the board of elections in Toledo had no option other than placing LEBOR on the ballot.  This outcome does not necessarily mean that if Toledo passes LEBOR, it is a done deal; if and when it passes, courts could determine it is unconstitutional and/or beyond the scope of the city’s power. 

The case is cited as State ex rel. Abernathy v. Lucas Cty. Bd. Of Elections, Slip Opinion No. 2019-Ohio-201, and the opinion is available at https://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2019/2019-Ohio-201.pdf.

By: Evin Bachelor, Friday, January 11th, 2019

Written by: Evin Bachelor, Law Fellow

Welcome to 2019 from all of us at the OSU Extension Agricultural and Resource Law Program!  With a new Congress, a new Ohio General Assembly, and a new slate of leaders atop Ohio’s executive offices, we are expecting a flurry of activity in the new year.  Our resolution this year is to keep you in the know about agricultural law news, and maybe find some time to exercise.

Here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news that you may want to know:

U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear state livestock standard lawsuits.  In a previous blog post, we noted that California and Massachusetts had adopted laws that would require sellers of certain meats and eggs to follow heightened animal care standards in order to sell those products within California or Massachusetts.  Thirteen states, led by Indiana, quickly sued Massachusetts to stop its law from taking effect.  Missouri led another group of thirteen states in suing California.

Indiana and Missouri had attempted to have their cases brought directly before the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court has “original jurisdiction” over claims between states.  After the states filed their arguments with the Supreme Court, the justices asked the U.S. Solicitor General whether he believed these cases were appropriate for the Court’s original jurisdiction.  The Solicitor General filed briefs in the Indiana v. Massachusetts and Missouri v. California maters, and suggested that the Supreme Court should not exercise original jurisdiction because, among other things, the states lack the proper standing to sue.  Here, this argument essentially means that the resulting harm from enforcement of the statutes would not harm the states as states, but only some of their citizens, and that those citizens may still sue California or Massachusetts for their individualized harm.

The Supreme Court took the position of the Solicitor General and denied the requests of Indiana and Missouri to have the cases brought before the Court.  Any further action will have to be taken through the lower courts.  For more information about the Missouri v. California matter as argued to the Supreme Court, click here.  For more information about the Indiana v. Massachusetts matter as argued to the Supreme Court, click here.

USDA not required to adopt Obama-era “Farmer Fair Practice Rules,” according to federal appeals court.  In December 2016, the USDA published the Farmer Fair Practices Rules as an interim final rule, and published two amendments to its rules that deal with the Packers and Stockyards Act.  The amendments addressed the ease of bringing a lawsuit for unfair and uncompetitive business practices under the Packers and Stockyards Act.  The rule was set to take effect at the end of February 2017, although the amendments were only proposals that had not fully gone through the required notice and comment process.  In early February 2017, citing the President’s regulatory freeze, and arguing that the rule would cause more litigation and confusion, the USDA postponed, and ultimately withdrew, the rule.  The USDA also did not take action on the two proposed amendments.  The Organization for Competitive Markets sued to stop the USDA from withdrawing the interim final rule, and to compel the USDA to promulgate the two amendments, arguing that the 2008 Farm Bill requires action by the USDA.

On December 21, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit denied the Organization for Competitive Markets’ request for review.  The court explained that the USDA did not fail to fulfill its mandate, describing Congress’s language as ambiguous.  Further, the court said that the USDA’s withdrawal of the interim final rule followed the proper notice and comment procedures.  Ultimately the court believed that Congress has been monitoring this issue and if Congress wishes for a more specific action, then Congress should act.  The court’s opinion in Organization for Competitive Markets v. USDA, No. 17-3723 (8th Cir. 2018) is available here.

Funding for National Weather Service and National Algal Bloom Program receives President’s signature.  On Monday, January 7th, President Trump signed Senate Bill 2200, which passed during the previous Congress.  The bill increases funding for the National Weather Service’s agriculture related weather monitoring and forecasting from $26.5 million in 2019 to $28.5 million by 2023.  The Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, the research arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will see an increase in funding from $136.5 million in 2019 to $154 million by 2023.  The bill also instructs NOAA to “plan the procurement of future data sources and satellite architectures,” essentially instructing NOAA to think about cost-effective ways to upgrade weather monitoring systems both on the ground and in space.  The National Integrated Drought Information System will also see an increase in funding from $13.5 million this year to $14.5 million by 2023.  The program is to use some of the funding to “develop a strategy for a national coordinated soil moisture monitoring network” within the next year.  Finally, the bill also reauthorizes $20.5 million each year through 2023 for relief from hypoxia or harmful algal blooms “of national significance,” which the bill defines as “a hypoxia or harmful algal bloom event that has had or will likely have a significant detrimental environmental, economic, subsistence use, or public health impact on an affected state.”  For the text of the act, visit Congress’s webpage here.


Ohio Case Law Update

  • Ohio Power Citing Board cannot extend construction certificate for wind farm by simple motion, but must follow amendment process, according to the Ohio Supreme Court.  Black Fork Wind Energy filed an application with the Ohio Power Citing Board (“the board”) to construct a wind farm in Crawford and Richland Counties in 2011, and the board approved the application in January 2012.  Black Fork had five years, until January 2017, to begin construction on the project.  The project was delayed due to a lawsuit challenging the project, and Black Fork sought an additional two years to begin construction.  The board granted Black Fork’s motion without a full application to amend and investigation.  The board argued that it regularly grants such extensions and that extensions do not amount to an “amendment” that would require an application because an extension is not “a proposed change to the facility.”  The majority of the Ohio Supreme Court disagreed, and held that the board acted improperly.  Because the commencement of construction was a term in the certificate, granting an extension amounts to an amendment in the certificate.  As such, the board should not have acted on the request without requiring an application for amendment and investigation.  The Court reversed the order and remanded the issue back for further proceedings.  Justices Fischer and O’Donnell dissented, arguing that the Court should defer to the board in how it reads “amendment” under Ohio Revised Code § 4906.07(B).  For the Ohio Supreme Court’s opinion from In re application of Black Ford Wind Energy, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-5206, click here.
  • Creditors must first seek payment of unpaid bills from estate of deceased spouse before attempting to collect from a surviving spouse, according to the Ohio Supreme Court.  In Embassy Healthcare v. Bell, Mr. Robert Bell received care at a nursing home operated by Embassy Healthcare.  Embassy sent a letter for collection to his wife, Mrs. Bell, six months and three days after he had passed away, but no estate for Mr. Bell had been opened.  In Ohio, creditors have six months to request an estate administrator be appointed in order to collect a debt from an estate, but Embassy did not make such a request.  Since it missed the six month statute of limitations, Embassy tried to seek collection from Mrs. Bell under Ohio’s “necessaries” law, as provided in Ohio Revised Code § 3103.03.  This law requires spouses to support their spouse with money, property, or labor if their spouse cannot do so on their own; however, the Ohio Supreme Court has said that a person is responsible for their own debts first, and that under this statute their spouse will only be liable if that person cannot pay for their debts.  In this case, the Ohio Supreme Court said that Embassy had to seek payment from Mr. Bell’s estate before it could require payment from his spouse.  Since the statute of limitations had run to bring a claim against Mr. Bell’s estate, Embassy would be unable to demonstrate that Mr. Bell’s estate could not cover his personal debts.  Therefore, Embassy would not be able to prove an essential requirement of Ohio’s necessaries law, and cannot recover from his spouse.  For the Ohio Supreme Court’s opinion in Embassy Healthcare v. Bell, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-4912, click here.
  • Trial court may determine width of easement as a question of fact, and will not be reversed by appellate court unless the evidence shows it clearly lost its way, according to Ohio Court of Appeals for the 7th District.  A property owner signed an express easement to a neighbor so that the neighbor could cross the property owner’s land to access the public road.  The written easement did not specify the width of the easement, but the neighbor cleared a path approximately 10 feet wide.  The property owner eventually sold the property, and the new owner laid gravel on the path from the public road to their garage, and the neighbor extended the gravel all the way to his own property.  Disputes later arose regarding the easement, and the neighbor sued the new property owners for breach of easement, and sought a declaration that the easement was thirty feet wide.  Ohio case law allows trial courts to establish the dimensions of an easement if the writing does not specify any dimensions if the trial court examines: 1) the language of the granting document, 2) the context of the transaction, and 3) the purpose of the easement.  The trial court found the easement to be ten feet wide.  The neighbor appealed, but the Seventh District found the trial court’s decision to be reasonable given the evidence and Ohio law.  Since the width of an easement is a question of fact, an appellate court will not reverse the trial court absent evidence that the trial court clearly lost its way given the weight of the evidence.  For the Seventh Districts’ opinion in Cliffs and Creek, LLC v. Swallie, 2018-Ohio-5410 (7th Dist.), click here.
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