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In 2017, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 1217, which allows Texas notaries to do remote notarization. Beginning July 1, 2018, commissioned notaries can apply to be commissioned as an Online Notary Public. In August 2017, the Texas Secretary of State published the revised administrative rules that govern the new process.

The new rules require that you first be a licensed notary, and obtain a digital certificate furnished by a third party provider and an electronic seal. In addition, an online notary must maintain an electronic record of the online notarization, including a recording and backup of the audio-visual conference, and must use a third party to perform identify proofing and credential analysis in order to identify the person for whom you are performing the notarization. Further details are available at the Texas Secretary of State website here.

This new process will certainly facilitate online transactions like real estate purchases and oil and gas leases. However, as with all things digital, there is going to be the capacity for fraud. It will be interesting to see how this new process weathers over time.

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The course of dealings between the parties over a period of time can lead to modifications and waivers of provisions within an oil and gas lease and related contracts. A recent Dallas Court of Appeals case, Tollett v. MPI Surface, LLC, Case No. 05-17-00435-CV (Tex.Civ.App.- Dallas, no writ), illustrates that point.

In 2012, Cecelia Tollett entered into a groundwater sales agreement that allowed MPI Surface, LLC (“MPI”) to extract groundwater from Tollett’s land to sell to others for various uses in the oil and gas industry. Among other provisions, the agreement provided that Tollett was to be paid a 25% royalty of the gross sale proceeds with said royalties to be “… due on the same day of each month in which sale proceeds are collected by MPI.” Furthermore, the agreement provided that failing to timely and fully pay the royalties “shall be considered a material breach” allowing Tollett to terminate the agreement. Further, the agreement required MPI to establish and maintain a point of sale meter to record sales. Under the agreement, Tollett could install her own meters if MPI failed to install meters. The agreement also provided that “… MPI’s failure to timely and fully meter the water sales and disposal water shall be considered a material breach” of the agreement allowing Tollett to terminate.

MPI drilled four wells and began making royalty payments. However, MPI never installed any sort of point-of-sale metering system. Tollett did not complain and did not install her own meters. Over the course of the next four years, royalties were paid monthly but not on the same day on which payments were collected from the third-party buyers. MPI intended to pay the royalties on the 20th of each month, but generally was either a couple of days early or a couple of days late. The agreement contained a 60-day grace period. Over the first four years of the agreement, Tollett never complained about the monthly royalty payments and never complained about whether the payments actually fell on the 20th or a few days later.

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A recent case from the Texas Court of Appeals in Waco held that the Texas Statute of Frauds — Tex. Bus. & Com. Code, § 26.01 — rendered a land man’s commission contract unenforceable. The Court also upheld the trial court’s determination that none of the exceptions to the Statute of Frauds applied. The case is Moore v. Bearkat Energy Partners, LLC, 2018 WL 6837542018 (Tex.Civ. App.- Waco, no writ). Land man Moore had an agreement where he was supposed to be paid $600.00 per mineral acre for each and every lease he helped obtain for Bearkat Energy. Moore claims he performed and sued when he did not get paid. He claimed $1 million in damages and asked for $10 million in punitive damages. As noted, Moore lost on summary judgment at the trial level and received nothing. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Although the result may sound harsh, Moore could not meet any of the exceptions to the Statute of Frauds such as the partial or full-performance exceptions.

Texas Statute of Frauds and Exceptions

In general, Texas law requires that certain types of contracts be in writing. Examples include:

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Normally, this blog discusses Texas court cases and decisions. However, occasionally, a court decision from one of our sister states is of interest. Such is the case with Briggs v. Southwestern Energy Production Co., 184 A.3d 153 (2018). In Briggs, the Pennsylvania Superior Court — equivalent to our Texas Courts of Appeal — held that a claim for subsurface trespass may be maintained as a result of hydraulic fracturing and that the “rule of capture” does not preclude the cause of action. This is, of course, directly at odds with the rule here in Texas established by Coastal Oil & Gas Corp. v. Garza Energy Trust, 268 S.W.3d 1 (Tex.2008). As a reminder, the Coastal Oil decision was a 6-3 split decision by the Texas Supreme Court. As one might expect, the Briggs opinion discussed Coastal Oil at length but concluded that the dissenters in Coastal Oil had the better arguments.

Briggs is another example that oil and gas law is changing — slowly — to reflect the fact that extracting petrochemicals from shale formations is different from extracting petrochemicals from older, more traditional oil fields. In this respect, Texas law is changing, too, as is evidenced by the recent Supreme Court case in Adams v. Murphy Exploration & Production Co.- USA, Case No. 16-0505 (Tex. 2018). In Adams/Murphy Exploration — involving offset wells — the Court highlighted the differences between vertical drilling into an underground reservoir and horizontal drilling into and using hydraulic pressure to extract oil/gas from a shale formation. With a reservoir, oil and gas will migrate across property lines towards any low pressure area created by a production well. However, there is no such migration in shale formations. Partly because of this difference, the Adams/Murphy Exploration court ruled that an offset well satisfied the requirements of the pertinent lease.

Briggs: Facts of Case and Court’s Reasoning

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Last summer, we wrote about an interesting case involving offset wells and covenants (both implied and express) to prevent drainage in shale formations. As discussed in our earlier article, the San Antonio Court of Appeals reversed summary judgment for Murphy Exploration and remanded the case back to the trial court. However, the Texas Supreme Court recently reversed that decision on a close 5-4 decision. See Adams v. Murphy Exploration & Production Co.- USA, Case No. 16-0505 (Tex. 2018). You can read the dissenting opinion here.

At issue was whether Murphy Exploration violated its lease with the plaintiff landowners by drilling an offset will that was drilled 1,800 feet away from the pertinent lease line and 2,100 feet from the triggering well on the neighboring property.

The oil & gas lease between the parties required the drilling of an offset well if a producing well was drilled on a neighboring tract. A well was drilled on a neighboring tract and Murphy Exploration then drilled a new well on the leased tract, which it claimed was the required offset well. As noted, the new well was 2,100 feet from the neighbor’s wellhead and 1,800 feet from the property line. In many cases, a well so far from the neighboring well would not have prevented drainage to the neighboring well. The plaintiff did not believe it did, and brought suit claiming that the well drilled by Murphy Exploration did not constitute an “offset well” as that term is defined and understood in the gas and oil industry. The lease between the parties did not define the term “offset well.”

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The recent Court of Appeals case of Lackey v. Templeton, 2018 WL 3384570 (Tex. Civ.App. — Beaumont, no pet.), provides another illustration of the legal principle that, in Texas, if you are challenging who owns certain real property, you MUST bring a trespass-to-try-title claim. No other cause of action — such as a declaratory judgment action — will suffice. This is in contrast to a recent Texas Supreme Court case — Lance v. Robinson, 543 S.W.3d 723 (Tex. 2018) — in which the Supreme Court held that a declaratory judgment action WAS allowable because the dispute in that case concerned easement rights — not ownership rights.

Texas Property Law: Challenging Ownership

In Texas, causes of action for challenging or asserting ownership of real property — including ownership of mineral estates — are governed by statute. In this regard, Section 22.001(a) of the Texas Property Code states that a “trespass to try title action is the method of determining title to lands, tenements, and other real property.” See Tex. Prop. Code § 22.001(a). Texas courts have interpreted this provision to mean that a trespass-to-try-title cause action is the exclusive remedy for resolving competing claims to ownership of real property.

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A recent decision handed down by the U.S. Fifth Circuit of Appeals makes it clear that great care should be taken with how the consideration clause of Texas oil and gas leases are drafted. The case of In the Matter of: Goodrich Petroleum Corporation, 894 F3d 192 (5th Cir.) illustrates that you should NOT use the standard verbiage with respect to consideration paid if additional consideration for the lease is due. The additional consideration should be fully described, thereby providing notice of record to third parties of the additional consideration due.

Often, almost as a matter of rote, Texas oil and gas leases use language similar to this:

“NOW, THEREFORE, for the promises and covenants exchanged below, and for other good and valuable consideration, the receipt and sufficiency of which is hereby acknowledged, the Parties agree …”

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In re Keenan is a recent case where a party was successful in obtaining a review of ballots for a homeowner’s association vote to amend its architectural rules. Keenan was a member of a Homeowner’s Association (HOA) in her neighborhood, and was sued by the HOA over improvements that she had made to her property. According to the HOA, Keenan’s improvements exceeded a limit on impervious cover in violation of an HOA rule amendment enacted by a vote in 2006. Keenan believed the rule was not properly enacted and questioned whether there were a sufficient number of votes to approve the HOA rule amendment.

Keenan requested copies of the votes from the 2006 vote through discovery, but the trial court would not permit her to review them on the grounds that the ballots were confidential under Property Code 209.00594(c) which states that only a person qualified to tabulate votes in a property owners’ association election “may be given access to the ballots.” The court did allow  Keenan’s lawyer to review the ballots, but in order for Keenan’s lawyer to testify about the accuracy of the vote, he would have to be a witness, which is a violation of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct.

Since Keenan was prohibited by a court order from seeing the 2006 HOA vote ballots and submitting them as evidence to prove there had been an insufficient vote, and her lawyer was prevented by the court from testifying about the ballots by professional ethics, Keenan sought a writ of mandamus from the Texas Supreme Court.

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As many Texas landowners are aware, oil and gas pipelines are being constructed at an almost frantic pace these days. The first time a landowner is aware that they may be asked to sign a pipeline easement is a call from a land man or right-of-way agent requesting permission to conduct a survey on their property.

Many landowners simply give verbal permission or sign the one paragraph form offered to them by the land man or agent. That can be a mistake. If you’re interested in protecting your property, you should consider using an appropriate survey permit to govern the pipeline company’s surveying activities on your property. That is even more true for geophysical or seismic permits.

A pipeline permit should address at least the following issues:

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How the Texas courts construe and interpret unambiguous deeds follows a specific set of rules. In construing an unambiguous deed, the court’s main focus is to ascertain the parties’ true intent regarding the conveyance of real property by the deed. The court reviews the entirety of the deed, which is sometimes referred to as analyzing “the four corners” of the deed, meaning that the court will look to what is written in the deed, and not to outside sources. There are well established rules concerning the interpretation and construction of a real property deed.edge-1563789

For an unambiguous deed, the court will determine the grantor’s intent from the specific language that is used in the deed, and will not make presumptions that are not overtly made clear by the language of the deed. When there is even the slightest doubt about the intent of the grantor, the terms of a deed are often construed in favor of the grantee. This is consistent with Texas contract law, which strongly favors the presumption that contracts, such as deeds, say exactly what they mean.

Does A Grantor’s Failure to Designate Capacity Fatally Flaw A Conveyance?