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Property Rights

Oil and gas well pump.
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Esq., Monday, April 25th, 2022

One of the core principles of the American legal system is that people are free to enter into contracts and negotiate those terms as they see fit.  But sometimes the law prohibits certain rights from being “signed away.”  The interplay between state and federal law and the ability to contract freely can be a complex and overlapping web of regulations, laws, precedent, and even morals.  Recently, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled on a case that demonstrates the complex relationship between Ohio law and the ability of parties to negotiate certain terms within an oil and gas lease.     

The Background.  Ascent Resources-Utica, L.L.C. (“Defendant”) acquired leases to the oil and gas rights of farmland located in Jefferson County, Ohio allowing it to physically occupy the land which included the right to explore the land for oil and gas, construct wells, erect telephone lines, powerlines, and pipelines, and to build roads.  The leases also had a primary and secondary term language that specified that the leases would terminate after five years unless a well is producing oil or gas or unless Defendant had commenced drilling operations within 90 days of the expiration of the five-year term. 

After five years had passed, the owners of the farmland in Jefferson County (“Plaintiffs”) filed a lawsuit for declaratory judgment asking the Jefferson County Court of Common Pleas to find that the oil and gas leases had expired because of Defendant’s failure to produce oil or gas or to commence drilling within 90 days.  Defendant counterclaimed that the leases had not expired because it had obtained permits to drill wells on the land and had begun constructing those wells before the expiration of the leases.  Defendant also moved to stay the lawsuit, asserting that arbitration was the proper mechanism to determine whether the leases had expired, not a court. 

What is Arbitration and is it Legal?  Arbitration is a method of resolving disputes, outside of the court system, in which two contracting parties agree to settle a dispute using an independent, impartial third party (the “arbitrator”).  Arbitration usually involves presenting evidence and arguments to the arbitrator, who will then decide how the dispute should be settled.  Arbitration can be a quicker, less burdensome method of resolving a dispute. Because of this, parties to a contract will often agree to forgo their right to sue in a court of law, and instead, abide by any arbitration decision.   

Ohio law also recognizes the rights of parties to agree to use arbitration, rather than a court, to settle a dispute.  Ohio Revised Code § 2711.01(A) provides that “[a] provision in any written contract, except as provided in [§ 2711.01(B)], to settle by arbitration . . . shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, except upon grounds that exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.”  What this means is that Ohio will enforce arbitration clauses contained within a contract, except in limited circumstances.  One of those limited circumstances arises in Ohio Revised Code § 2711.01(B).  § 2711.01(B)(1) provides that “[s]ections 2711.01 to 2711.16 . . . do not apply to controversies involving the title to or the possession of real estate . . .”  Because land and real estate are so precious, Ohio will not enforce an arbitration clause when the controversy involves the title to or possession of land or other real estate.  

To be or not to be?  After considering the above provisions of the Ohio Revised Code, the Jefferson County Court of Common Pleas denied Defendant’s request to stay the proceedings pending arbitration.  The Common Pleas Court concluded that Plaintiffs’ claims involved the title to or possession of land and therefore was exempt from arbitration under Ohio law.  However, the Seventh District Court of Appeals disagreed with the Jefferson County court.  The Seventh District reasoned that the controversy was not about title to land or possession of land, rather it was about the termination of a lease, and therefore should be subject to the arbitration provisions within the leases.   

The case eventually made its way to the Ohio Supreme Court, which was tasked with answering one single question: is an action seeking to determine that an oil and gas lease has expired by its own terms the type of controversy “involving the title to or the possession of real estate” so that the action is exempt from arbitration under Ohio Revised Code § 2711.01(B)(1)? 

The Ohio Supreme Court determined that yes, under Ohio law, an action seeking to determine whether an oil and gas lease has expired by its own terms is not subject to arbitration.  The Ohio Supreme Court reasoned that an oil and gas lease grants the lessee a property interest in the land and constitutes a title transaction because it affects title to real estate.  Additionally, the Ohio Supreme Court found that an oil and gas lease affects the possession of land because a lessee has a vested right to the possession of the land to the extent reasonably necessary to carry out the terms of the lease.  Lastly, the Ohio Supreme Court provided that if the conditions of the primary term or secondary term of an oil and gas lease are not met, then the lease terminates, and the property interest created by the oil and gas lease reverts back to the owner/lessor.  

In reaching its holding, the Ohio Supreme Court concluded that Plaintiffs’ lawsuit is exactly the type of controversy that involves the title to or the possession of real estate.  If Plaintiffs are successful, then it will quiet title to the farmland, remove the leases as encumbrances to the property, and restore the possession of the land to the Plaintiffs.  If Plaintiffs are unsuccessful, then title to the land will remain subject to the terms of the leases which affects the transferability of the land.  Additionally, the Ohio Supreme Court concluded that if Plaintiffs were unsuccessful then Defendant would have the continued right to possess and occupy the land.  Therefore, the Ohio Supreme Court found that Plaintiffs’ controversy regarding the termination of oil and gas leases is the type of controversy that is exempt from arbitration clauses under § 2711.01(B)(1). 

Conclusion.  Although Ohio recognizes the ability of parties to freely negotiate and enter into contracts, there are cases when the law will step in to override provisions of a contract.  The determination of title to and possession of real property is one of those instances.  Such a determination can have drastic and long-lasting effects on the property rights of individuals.  Therefore, as evidenced by this Ohio Supreme Court ruling, Ohio courts will not enforce an arbitration provision when the controversy is whether or not oil and gas leases have terminated.  To read more of the Ohio Supreme Court’s Opinion visit: https://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2022/2022-Ohio-869.pdf.

 

 

Ants and aphids on a plant stem.
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Esq., Friday, February 04th, 2022

Did you know that ants are the only creatures besides humans that will farm other creatures?  It’s true.  Just like we raise cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens in order to obtain a food source, ants will do the same with other insects.  This is particularly true with aphids.  Ants will protect aphids from natural predators and shelter them during heavy rain showers in order to gain a constant supply of honeydew.

Like an ant, we have done some heavy lifting to bring you the latest agricultural and resource law updates.  We start with some federal cases that deal with the definition of navigable waters under the Clean Water Act, mislabeling honey products, and indigenous hunting rights.  We then finish with some state law developments from across the country that include Georgia’s right to farm law and California’s Proposition 12.  

Supreme Court to review navigable waters definition under the Clean Water Act.  The Supreme Court announced that it would hear the case of an Idaho couple who have been battling the federal government over plans to build their home.  Chantell and Mike Sackett (“Plaintiffs”) began construction on their new home near Priest Lake, Idaho but were halted by the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”).  The EPA issued an administrative compliance order alleging that Plaintiffs’ construction violates the Clean Water Act.  The EPA claims that the lot, on which the Plaintiffs are constructing their new home, contains wetlands that qualify as federally regulated “navigable waters.”  Plaintiffs are asking the Court to revisit its 2006 opinion in Rapanos v. United States and help clarify how to determine when a wetland should be classified as “navigable waters.”  In Rapanos, the Court found that the Clean Water Act regulates only certain wetlands, those that are determined to be “navigable waters.”  However, two different tests were laid out in the Court’s opinions.  The Court issued a plurality opinion which stated that the government can only regulate wetlands that have a continuous surface water connection to other regulated waters.  A concurring opinion, authored by Justice Kennedy, put forth a more relaxed test that allows for regulation of wetlands that bear a “significant nexus” with traditional navigable waters.  Justice Kennedy’s test did not take into consideration whether there was any surface water connection between the wetland and the traditional navigable waters.  In the lower appellate court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals used Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test to uphold the EPA’s authority to halt Plaintiffs’ construction.  Now, Plaintiffs hope the Supreme Court will adopt a clear rule that brings “fairness, consistency, and a respect for private property rights to the Clean Water Act’s administration.”  

SueBee sued for “bee”ing deceptive.  Sioux Honey Association Cooperative (“Defendant”) finds itself in a sticky situation after Jason Scholder (“Plaintiff”) brought a class action lawsuit against the honey maker for violating New York’s consumer protection laws by misrepresenting the company’s honey products marketed under the SueBee brand.  Plaintiff claims that the words “Pure” or “100% Pure” on the Defendant’s honey products are misleading and deceptive because the honey contains glyphosate.  Defendant filed a motion to dismiss the class action lawsuit and a federal district court in New York granted Defendant’s motion in part and denied it in part.  Defendant asked the court to find that its labels could not be misleading as a matter of law because any trace amounts of glyphosate in the honey is a result of the natural behavior of bees interacting with agriculture and not a result of Defendant’s production process.  However, the court declined to dismiss Plaintiff’s mislabeling claims.  The court concluded that a reasonable consumer might not actually understand that the terms “Pure” or “100% Pure” means that trace amounts of glyphosate could end up in honey from the bees’ foraging process.  The court also declined the Defendant’s request to dismiss Plaintiff’s unjust enrichment claim because of the alleged misrepresentations of the honey.  However, the court did dismiss Plaintiff’s breach of express warranty claim and request for injunctive relief.  The court dismissed Plaintiff’s breach of express warranty claim because Plaintiff failed to notify Defendant of its alleged breach of warranty, as required by New York law.  Plaintiff’s request for injunctive relief was also dismissed because the court could not find any imminent threat of continued injury to Plaintiff since he has now learned that the honey contains trace amounts of glyphosate.  The court ordered the parties to proceed with discovery on Plaintiff’s remaining claims, keeping the case abuzz.

Indigenous Hunting Rights.  Recently, two members of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation (“Northwestern Band”) were cited for hunting on Idaho lands without tags issued by the state.  The Northwestern Band filed suit against the state of Idaho declaring that its members possessed hunting rights pursuant to the Fort Bridger Treaty of 1868 (the “1868 Treaty”).  The 1868 Treaty provided that the Shoshone Nation agreed to permanently settle on either Fort Hall Reservation, located in Southeastern Idaho, or Wind River Reservation, located in Western Wyoming.  By agreeing to settle on one of the two reservations, the Shoshone Nation was granted hunting rights on unoccupied lands of the United states.  However, the Northwestern Band ended up settling in Northern Utah and not on one of the two named reservations.  After considering the 1868 Treaty, the Federal District Court of Idaho dismissed Northwestern Band’s lawsuit.  The court held that the hunting rights contained in the 1868 Treaty were tied to the promise to live on one of the reservations, and that a tribe cannot receive those hunting rights without living on one of the appropriate reservations.  Thus, the court found that because the Northwestern Band settled in Northern Utah and not on one of the reservations, the hunting rights of the 1868 Treaty did not extend to the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation.  

Tensions rise over Georgia’s Freedom to Farm Act.  A few days ago, Georgia lawmakers introduced legislation that seeks to further protect Georgia farmers from nusiance lawsuits.  House Bill 1150 (“HB 1150”) proposes to change current Georgia law to protect farmers and other agricultural operations from being sued for emitting smells, noises, and other activities that may be found offensive by neighboring landowners.  Georgia’s current law, which became effective in 1980, does provide some protection for Georgia farmers, but only from neighboring landowners that have moved near the farm or agricultural operation after the current law went into effect.  All neighboring landowners that lived near the farming operation prior to the current law going into effect have retained their right to sue.  HB 1150, on the other hand, will prevent these nuisance lawsuits by all neighboring landowners, as long as the farm or agricultural operation have been operating for a year or more.  Passing a right to farm law has proven to be difficult in Georgia.  In 2020, House Bill 545, also known as the “Right to Farm bill” failed to pass before the final day of the 2019-2020 legislative session. Private landowners, farmers, and their supporters, are divided on the issue and seek to protect their respective property rights. It doesn't look like HB 1150 will have the easiest of times in the Georgia legislature. 

Confining California's Proposition 12.  Meat processors and businesses that sell whole pork meat in California (collectively the “Petitioners”) have delayed the enforcement of California’s Proposition 12 (“Prop 12”), for now.  Prop 12 is California’s animal confinement law that has sent shockwaves across the nation as it pertains to raising and selling pork, eggs, and veal.  Last week, the Superior Court for Sacramento County granted Petitioners’ writ of mandate to delay the enforcement of Prop 12 on sales of whole pork meat.  Petitioners argue that Prop 12 cannot be enforced until California has implemented its final regulations on Prop 12.  To date, California has yet to implement those final regulations.  California, on the other hand, suggests that final regulations are not a precondition to enforcement of Prop 12 and the civil and criminal penalties that can be brought against any farmer or business that violates Prop 12.  The court disagreed.  The court found that the language of Prop 12, as voted on by California residents, explicitly states that California voters wanted regulations in place before the square-footage requirements of Prop 12 took effect.  Therefore, the court granted Petitioners’ writ of mandate to prevent the enforcement of Prop 12 until final regulations have been implemented.  The court’s writ will remain in effect until 180 days after final regulations go into effect.  This will allow producers and businesses to prepare themselves to comply with the final regulations.  Opponents of Prop 12 believe this is another reason why the Supreme Court of the United States should review California’s Proposition 12 for its constitutionality.  

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