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Gastar Exploration Inc. v. Rine

Supreme Court of West Virginia

October 19, 2017

GASTAR EXPLORATION INC. and RONA LEE MCCARDLE, Defendants Below, Petitioners
v.
GARY RINE, as the Administrator of the Estate of Okey Franklin Yoho, et al. Plaintiffs Below, Respondents

          Submitted: October 4, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Marshall County Civil Action No. 13-C-164 The Honorable David W. Hummel, Jr., Judge

          William M. Herlihy, Esq. Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC Charleston, West Virginia Matthew P. Heiskell, Esq. Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC Morgantown, West Virginia Counsel for Petitioner Gastar Exploration Inc.

          Jeffrey A. Kimble, Esq. Robinson & McElwee, PLLC Clarksburg, West Virginia, Counsel for Petitioner Rona Lee McCardle

          Jeffrey V. Kessler, Esq. Berry, Kessler, Crutchfield, Taylor & Gordon Moundsville, West Virginia Counsel for Respondents Gary Rine, individually and as the Administrator of the Estate of Okey Franklin Yoho; Dinah A. Gray; and Carl Smith

          Teresa C. Toriseva, Esq. Joshua D. Miller, Esq., Toriseva Law Wheeling, West Virginia Counsel for Respondents Betty Pyzell; Norma Ash; Debbie Rine; LeRoy Yoho; Kim Yoho; Ron Yoho; Jodi Yoho; Vicki Williams; Connie Streight; Nancy Brown; Mark Campbell; and Harold Yoho

         SYLLABUS

         1. "A circuit court's entry of a declaratory judgment is reviewed de novo." Syllabus Point 3, Cox v. Amick, 195 W.Va. 608, 466 S.E.2d 459 (1995).

         2. "When it is found from the pleadings, depositions and admissions on file, and the affidavits of any party, in a summary judgment proceeding under Rule 56 of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure, that a party who has moved for summary judgment in his favor is not entitled to such judgment and that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, a summary judgment may be rendered against [the moving] party in such proceeding." Syllabus Point 6, Employers' Liab. Assur. Corp. v. Hartford Acc. & Indem. Co., 151 W.Va. 1062, 158 S.E.2d 212 (1967).

         3. "For ascertainment of the intent of the parties to a deed in which the description of the subject matter is inconsistent, contradictory and ambiguous, extrinsic evidence is admissible." Syllabus Point 1, State v. Herold, 76 W.Va. 537, 85 S.E. 733 (1915).

         4. "To enable the court to construe a deed or other writing, ambiguous on its face, it is always permissible to prove the situation of the parties, the circumstances surrounding them when the contract was entered into and their subsequent conduct giving it a practical construction, but not their verbal declarations. But, if a latent ambiguity is disclosed by such evidence, such for instance as that the terms of the writing are equally applicable to two or more objects, when only a certain one of them was meant, then prior and contemporaneous transactions and collocutions of the parties are admissible, for the purpose of identifying the particular object intended." Syllabus Point 2, Snider v. Robinett, 78 W.Va. 88, 88 S.E. 599 (1916).

         5. "The term 'ambiguity' is defined as language reasonably susceptible of two different meanings or language of such doubtful meaning that reasonable minds might be uncertain or disagree as to its meaning." Syllabus Point 4, Estate of Tawney v. Columbia Nat. Res., L.L.C., 219 W.Va. 266, 633 S.E.2d 22 (2006).

         6. "Where there is ambiguity in a deed, or where it admits of two constructions, that one will be adopted which is most favorable to the grantee." Syllabus Point 6, Paxton v. Benedum-Trees Oil Co., 80 W.Va. 187, 94 S.E. 472 (1917).

          OPINION

          KETCHUM, JUSTICE

         This case concerns a 1977 deed and its effect on the ownership of a one-half interest in oil and gas beneath a tract of land in Marshall County, West Virginia. When a deed is ambiguous, a court must weigh extraneous evidence like the conduct of the grantor and grantee to determine the parties' intent. A court must also adopt any reasonable interpretation of the deed most favorable to the grantee.

         As we discuss below, we find the 1977 deed is ambiguous and of such doubtful meaning that reasonable minds disagree as to the deed's intent. The Circuit Court of Marshall County incorrectly found the deed was clear, and incorrectly found that the grantors did not convey the one-half interest in oil and gas to the grantee. Because the deed was ambiguous, the circuit court should have considered the parties' conduct after delivery of the deed - namely that the grantors to the deed stopped paying taxes on the oil and gas interest while the grantee started paying taxes. We reverse the circuit court's decision, and remand the case for entry of a judgment in favor of the grantee.

         I.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Before 1957, Clifford and Beulah Franklin owned the entire tract of land in dispute in this case. Then, by a deed dated January 30, 1957, the Franklins conveyed the tract to Okey and Frances Yoho in fee simple, with one important reservation: the Franklins "excepted and reserved" for themselves an undivided one-half interest in the oil and gas underlying the tract. They conveyed the other one-half interest to the Yohos. The 1957 deed provided:

There is further excepted and reserved from this conveyance an undivided one-half (1/2) interest in the oil and gas, including gas storage rights, within and underlying the land hereby conveyed, together with such mining rights and privileges as may be necessary and convenient to the operation thereof for production, storage or observation of said oil and gas and the strata containing the same.

         Hence, the parties agree that, under the 1957 deed, the Yohos owned the surface of the tract and owned a one-half undivided interest in the oil and gas.

         Over the next 20 years, tax documents in the record indicate that the Yohos paid real estate taxes on that one-half oil and gas interest. For instance, tax records for 1976 show that the Yohos were assessed taxes on the tract and the one-half oil and gas interest, described in the tax records as "102.080 [acres] Long Run & ½ O&G." The tax records also show the Franklins were assessed taxes on the other one-half interest, described as, "½ Interest] 102.08 [acres] O&G Long Run."

         In a deed dated April 5, 1977, the Yohos conveyed the tract to defendant Rona Lee McCardle. [1] The 1977 deed conveyed to Ms. McCardle "the same property conveyed to Okey F. Yoho and Frances A. Yoho, his wife, by Clifford E. Franklin and Beulah Franklin, his wife, by deed dated the 30th day of January, 1957[.]"

         However, the parties dispute the meaning of language in the 1977 deed regarding the one-half interest in the oil and gas. The scrivener of the 1977 deed included an "excepted and reserved" paragraph identical, word-for-word, to that contained in the Franklins' 1957 deed, which provided:

There is further excepted and reserved from this conveyance an undivided one-half (1/2) interest in the oil and gas, including gas storage rights, within and underlying the land hereby conveyed, together with such mining rights and privileges as may be necessary and convenient to the operation thereof for production storage or observation of said oil and gas and the strata containing the same.

         In an affidavit, Ms. McCardle stated that it was her "understanding and intention" that she purchased one-half of the oil and gas beneath the tract. Over the next 30-plus years after 1977, tax documents indicate that Ms. McCardle paid real estate taxes on the one-half oil and gas interest. For instance, tax records from 1978 show Ms. McCardle was assessed taxes on land described as "102.080 [acres] Long Run & ½ O&G." In her affidavit, Ms. McCardle stated that since 1977 she ...


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