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Kupfer v. Chesapeake Appalachia, LLC

Supreme Court of West Virginia

May 11, 2018

Ronald Lee Kupfer, Individually, and Beth S. Kupfer, Individually, Plaintiffs Below, Petitioners
v.
Chesapeake Appalachia, LLC, Zachary Blair, and SWN Production Company, LLC, Defendants Below, Respondents

          Marshall County 16-C-142

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioners Ronald Lee Kupfer and Beth S. Kupfer, by counsel Teresa C. Toriseva and Joshua D. Miller, appeal the May 11, 2017, order of the Circuit Court of Marshall County that granted the motion for judgment on the pleadings filed by Respondent Zachary Blair and the motions to dismiss filed by Respondents SWN Production Company, LLC ("SWN"), and Chesapeake Appalachia, LLC ("CHK"). Respondent Blair, by counsel Jonathan E. Turak and Christian E. Turak; Respondent CHK, by counsel Nicolle R. Snyder Bagnell and Lucas Liben; and Respondent SWN, by counsel Timothy M. Miller, Matthew S. Casto, and W. Brian Nickerson, filed responses in support of the circuit court's order. Petitioners submitted a reply.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         By deed dated March 29, 1980, petitioners were conveyed ninety acres of land that was comprised of thirty acres located in Proctor District, Wetzel County, and sixty acres located in Mead District, Marshall County. This deed did not include any oil and gas reservations. It is of record in the Office of the Clerk of the County Commission of Wetzel County in Deed Book 486, Page 456.

         By deed dated April 26, 1981, petitioners conveyed thirty acres of the original ninety acres, located in Wetzel County, to Kenneth R. and Cheryl E. Darr. This deed did not include any oil and gas reservations. It is of record in the Office of the Clerk of the County Commission of Wetzel County in Deed Book 303, Page 63.

         By deed dated May 2, 1990 ("the subject deed"), petitioners conveyed nine parcels of land to C. Michael Blair, including the sixty acres located in Marshall County. The sixty-acre parcel is referred to in this deed as the "NINTH PARCEL."

         The subject deed stated, in relevant part, as follows: "WITNESSETH, . . . the said parties of the first part do GRANT and CONVEY unto the said party of the second part, the following described real estate, . . . Parcels 4, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20, . . . to-wit:" followed by separately enumerated paragraphs of the first eight parcels and their respective legal descriptions.[1] Immediately following these descriptions, the subject deed stated, "There is excepted and reserved from said parcels all the coal, oil, gas and other minerals, on, within and underlying the property hereby conveyed, together the right to lease, remove, mine, drill and operate for the same without any liability for damages, also with all rights for gas storage."

         Following this reservation and exception, the subject deed listed, in a separate paragraph, the "NINTH PARCEL, " followed by that parcel's legal description. No reservation of the coal, oil, gas, or minerals or any other reservation follows the legal description of the "NINTH PARCEL." [2]

         By deed dated September 13, 2000, C. Michael Blair conveyed his interest in the nine parcels exactly as referenced in the subject deed to Respondent Zachary M. Blair. The September 13, 2000, deed included the same reservation and exception as the subject deed following the legal description of parcels one through eight. Likewise, this deed did not include a reservation following the legal description of the "NINTH PARCEL."

         In an agreement entered on April 3, 2009, a lease modification was entered into with Respondent CHK, as sub-lessee, for the lease of the oil and gas underlying the subject sixty acres.[3] In January of 2014, Respondent CHK sold and assigned the lease, along with many other leases, to Respondent SWN, who currently holds the oil and gas lease for the subject property.

         On September 22, 2016, petitioners filed an amended complaint against respondents claiming that petitioners were the rightful owners of the oil and gas underlying the subject sixty acres. Petitioners alleged claims of conversion and trespass. Respondent Blair thereafter filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings under West Virginia Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) and Respondents CHK and SWN filed motions to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). Following a hearing, the circuit court entered an order granting respondents' respective motions. In its May 11, 2017, order, the court concluded that the May 2, 1990, deed unambiguously reserved the oil and gas under parcels one through eight to the grantors (i.e., petitioners) but did not reserve any oil and gas under the ninth parcel and that, because petitioners do not own the oil and gas, they do not have standing to bring any of their claims. This appeal followed.

         This appeal requires our review of two rulings that are the subject of the circuit court's May 11, 2017, order. The first ruling grants Respondent Blair's motion for judgment on the pleadings. "'Appellate review of a circuit court's order granting a motion for judgment on the pleadings is de novo.' Syl. Pt. 1, Copley v. Mingo County Bd. of Educ., 195 W.Va. 480, 466 S.E.2d 139 (1995)." Syl. Pt. 1, Choice Lands, LLC v. Tassen, 224 W.Va. 285, 685 S.E.2d 679 (2008). Furthermore, "[a] circuit court, viewing all the facts in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party, may grant a motion for judgment on the pleadings only if it appears beyond doubt that the nonmoving party can prove no set of facts in support of his or her claim or defense." Id. at 285, 685 S.E.2d at 679, at syl. pt. 2 (quoting Copley, 195 W.Va. at 480, 466 S.E.2d at 139). "'A motion for judgment on the pleadings presents a challenge to the legal effect of given facts rather than on proof of the facts themselves.'" Tassen, 224 W.V. at 285, 685 S.E.2d at 679 (quoting Copley, 195 W.Va. at 480, 466 S.E.2d at 139, at syl. pt. 2, in part).

         Similarly, "[a]ppellate review of a circuit court's order granting a motion to dismiss a complaint is de novo." Syl. Pt. 2, State ex rel. McGraw v. Scott Runyan Pontiac-Buick, Inc., 194 W.Va. 770, 461 S.E.2d 516 (1995). Finally, "[d]ismissal for failure to state a claim is proper 'where it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations.'" Murphy v. Smallridge, 196 W.Va. 35, 36, 468 S.E.2d 167, 168 (1996).

         At issue in this appeal is whether the circuit court erred in concluding that the subject deed "unambiguously reserved the oil and gas under parcels One through Eight, but [did] not reserve any oil and gas under the Ninth Parcel." Petitioners argue that "[a] deed of conveyance, in order to pass title, must contain a description of the property being conveyed which sufficiently identifies the land, either by the language of the granting clause itself or by reference to extrinsic facts which render the description certain." Sally-Mike Props. v. Yokum, 175 W.Va. 296, 301-02, 332 S.E.2d 597, 602 (1985). According to petitioners, the subject deed "stated[, ] in the paragraph immediately following the identification of the parties, what was being conveyed: ' . . . the following described real estate, whose Tax Map Number is 21, Parcels 4, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20. . . .'" Petitioners contend that this language "completed the conveyance" and that the descriptions of the individual parcels that appear later in the subject deed were unnecessary to meet the requirement that the land being conveyed ...


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